Psychosocial functioning in the balance between autism and psychosis: evidence from three populations

Ahmad Abu-Akel*, Stephen J. Wood, Rachel Upthegrove, Katharine Chisholm, Ashleigh Lin, Peter C. Hansen, Steven M. Gillespie, Ian A. Apperly, Christiane Montag

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Functional impairment is a core feature of both autism and schizophrenia spectrum disorders. While diagnostically independent, they can co-occur in the same individual at both the trait and diagnostic levels. The effect of such co-occurrence is hypothesized to worsen functional impairment. The diametric model, however, suggests that the disorders are etiologically and phenotypically diametrical, representing the extreme of a unidimensional continuum of cognition and behavior. A central prediction of this model is that functional impairment would be attenuated in individuals with mixed symptom expressions or genetic liability to both disorders. We tested this hypothesis in two clinical populations and one healthy population. In individuals with chronic schizophrenia and in individuals with first episode psychosis we evaluated the combined effect of autistic traits and positive psychotic symptoms on psychosocial functioning. In healthy carriers of alleles of copy number variants (CNVs) that confer risk for both autism and schizophrenia, we also evaluated whether variation in psychosocial functioning depended on the combined risk conferred by each CNV. Relative to individuals with biased symptom/CNV risk profiles, results show that functional impairments are attenuated in individuals with relatively equal levels of positive symptoms and autistic traits—and specifically stereotypic behaviors—, and in carriers of CNVs with relatively equal risks for either disorder. However, the pattern of effects along the “balance axis” varied across the groups, with this attenuation being generally less pronounced in individuals with high-high symptom/risk profile in the schizophrenia and CNV groups, and relatively similar for low-low and high-high individuals in the first episode psychosis group. Lower levels of functional impairments in individuals with “balanced” symptom profile or genetic risks would suggest compensation across mechanisms associated with autism and schizophrenia. CNVs that confer equal risks for both disorders may provide an entry point for investigations into such compensatory mechanisms. The co-assessment of autism and schizophrenia may contribute to personalized prognosis and stratification strategies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2976-2984
Number of pages9
JournalMolecular Psychiatry
Issue number7
Early online date14 Apr 2022
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2022

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