A Genetics-First Approach to Dissecting the Heterogeneity of Autism: Phenotypic Comparison of Autism Risk Copy Number Variants

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TitleA Genetics-First Approach to Dissecting the Heterogeneity of Autism: Phenotypic Comparison of Autism Risk Copy Number Variants
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2021
AuthorsChawner, SJRA, Doherty, JL, Anney, RJL, Antshel, KM, Bearden, CE, Bernier, R, Chung, WK, Clements, CC, Curran, SR, Cuturilo, G, Fiksinski, AM, Gallagher, L, Goin-Kochel, RP, Gur, RE, Hanson, E, Jacquemont, S, Kates, WR, Kushan, L, Maillard, AM, McDonald-McGinn, DM, Mihaljevic, M, Miller, JS, Moss, H, Pejovic-Milovancevic, M, Schultz, RT, Green-Snyder, LA, Vorstman, JA, Wenger, TL, Hall, Jand, Owen, MJ, van den Bree, MBM
JournalAmerican Journal of Psychiatry

Objective:Certain copy number variants (CNVs) greatly increase the risk of autism. The authors conducted a genetics-first study to investigate whether heterogeneity in the clinical presentation of autism is underpinned by specific genotype-phenotype relationships.Methods:This international study included 547 individuals (mean age, 12.3 years [SD=4.2], 54% male) who were ascertained on the basis of having a genetic diagnosis of a rare CNV associated with high risk of autism (82 16p11.2 deletion carriers, 50 16p11.2 duplication carriers, 370 22q11.2 deletion carriers, and 45 22q11.2 duplication carriers), as well as 2,027 individuals (mean age, 9.1 years [SD=4.9], 86% male) with autism of heterogeneous etiology. Assessments included the Autism Diagnostic Interview–Revised and IQ testing.Results:The four genetic variant groups differed in autism symptom severity, autism subdomain profile, and IQ profile. However, substantial variability was observed in phenotypic outcome in individual genetic variant groups (74%–97% of the variance, depending on the trait), whereas variability between groups was low (1%–21%, depending on the trait). CNV carriers who met autism criteria were compared with individuals with heterogeneous autism, and a range of profile differences were identified. When clinical cutoff scores were applied, 54% of individuals with one of the four CNVs who did not meet full autism diagnostic criteria had elevated levels of autistic traits.Conclusions:Many CNV carriers do not meet full diagnostic criteria for autism but nevertheless meet clinical cutoffs for autistic traits. Although profile differences between variants were observed, there is considerable variability in clinical symptoms in the same variant.