Does Autism Run in Families?

Siblings at table doing crafts

Jessie Casson / Getty Images

Language note: Although individual preferences exist, surveys of the autistic community consistently show that autistic people prefer identity-first language rather than person-first language (i.e., “autistic person” rather than “person with autism”). This article reflects that community language preference.

Our DNA is extremely complex, and we do not fully understand what causes traits to be inherited or skipped. However, research has shown that there is a genetic component to autism, meaning that autistic people are highly likely to be related to other autistic people. In fact, there is evidence that autism is “one of the most highly heritable disorders with negligible shared environmental contributions.”

In other words, yes, autism runs in families.

At the present time, we do not know which specific genes or combination of genes determine whether or not someone will be autistic or which genetic contributions contribute to someone’s level of support needs. Researchers have uncovered some recessive traits and mutations that contribute to whether or not someone will be autistic.

What It Means If a Diagnosis Runs in Families

Human beings are made up of DNA, which we inherit from our parents. This is why people might look similar to their parents or other family members, have health risks based on family history, or even have mannerisms or behaviors that are similar to family members. If a trait is passed down genetically through families, the trait is genetic.

Many mental health diagnoses have a genetic component, though the specific symptoms and manifestations of the diagnosis will vary for each individual due to environmental factors.

When people in your family have a trait or diagnosis, you are more likely to have that diagnosis compared to someone who does not have a family member with that diagnosis. Additionally, the likelihood that you will have a diagnosis increases based on how closely you are related to that family member. For example, you are more likely to share a diagnosis with a parent than with an aunt, uncle, or grandparent, since you share more genetics with your parents than with these extended family members.

If one parent has a diagnosis, this is not a guarantee that their children will also meet the criteria for the diagnosis. Genetics are complicated, and environmental factors influence how our genes manifest. When an individual’s gene presentation changes as a result of their environment, this is known as epigenetics.

My Child (Or Another Relative) Was Diagnosed With Autism

Most people do not understand what autism is or the various ways an autistic person can look. Because of this, many people are surprised to learn that someone close to them has been diagnosed with autism. You might feel confused, and you might find yourself thinking, “How can that be an autistic trait? Everyone does that!”

It might help to consider that others in your family are also autistic.

Should My Other Children Be Evaluated?

If an extended family member is diagnosed with autism, others in your family may also be autistic. It is not certain that your child will also be autistic. Still, if you notice that they exhibit sensory issues, struggle to communicate in a neurotypical way, or have a strong need to follow specific routines and rituals, they might benefit from being evaluated.

If your child is autistic and is struggling in school, they can qualify for an Individual Education Plan or 504 plan to support them in the classroom. IEPs can include the following:

  • Time and space for sensory breaks
  • Alternative presentation of education materials
  • Help with learning subjects that give them trouble

Autistic children who struggle with emotion regulation can benefit from understanding their neurotype. This can help them recognize what needs they are communicating with different behaviors and get those needs met in a healthy way. Parents can connect with the autistic community to better understand their child and support them appropriately.

Should I Be Evaluated?

If your child (or another family member) is diagnosed with autism, it is possible that you are autistic as well. Many autistic people are not diagnosed in childhood and realize that they are autistic as adults. Additionally, some are misdiagnosed with disorders that have similar symptoms to autism, such as certain anxiety disorders.

If you notice that you exhibit traits similar to those of an autistic relative, or your autistic child displays behaviors that remind you of your own childhood, you might be autistic as well. If you feel that a formal assessment would help you, you can seek out a psychological evaluation.

Diagnostic Criteria for Autism

  • Social communication and social interaction deficits that are present in multiple settings manifested by all of the following:
  • “Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity,” such as difficulty in having “normal back-and-forth conversation,” atypical expression of emotions, or not initiating or responding to social interactions.
  • Difficulty understanding or expressing nonverbal communication behaviors like tone, body language, and gestures.
  • Difficulty developing and maintaining social relationships.
  • “Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities” in at least two of the following areas:
  • Repetitive movements or speech, sometimes referred to as stimming.
  • Strong need for specific routines and rituals.
  • Intense, specific interests (often referred to as special interests).
  • Atypical responses to sensory input, such as responding more intensely to a sensory experience or not responding at all.
  • Symptoms must begin in early childhood, but they might not become significant until stressors become prominent later in life.
  • Symptoms must cause difficulty in multiple areas of functioning.
  • Symptoms must not be better explained by a different diagnosis

Support For Autistic Family Members

If you and/or a family member are autistic, you are existing and functioning in a world that was not created with your needs in mind. This can create challenges like sensory overload or miscommunication when held to neurotypical standards.

The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network has a resource database created by and for the autistic community. NeuroClastic is another source of community support and knowledge for autistic people and their families.

The more we understand the different ways that autism can present, the better autistic people can understand and share their experiences. This knowledge can help autistic people request and receive appropriate support.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Thapar, A., Rutter, M. Genetic Advances in Autism. J Autism Dev Disord 51, 4321–4332 (2021). doi:10.1007/s10803-020-04685-z

  2. Taylor, B.J., Hasler, B.P. Chronotype and Mental Health: Recent Advances. Curr Psychiatry Rep 20, 59 (2018). doi:10.1007/s11920-018-0925-8

  3. Dubois M, Guaspare C. From cellular memory to the memory of trauma: Social epigenetics and its public circulation. Social Science Information. 2020;59(1):144-183.

  4. Zaboski BA, Storch EA. Comorbid autism spectrum disorder and anxiety disorders: a brief review. Future Neurology. 2018;13(1):31-37.

  5. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. 5th ed., Text Revision, American Psychiatric Association, 2022. DSM-V-TR.

By Amy Marschall, PsyD
Dr. Amy Marschall is an autistic clinical psychologist with ADHD, working with children and adolescents who also identify with these neurotypes among others. She is certified in TF-CBT and telemental health.