Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder and Autism’s Shared Etiology


Researchers at Harvard, using data from Sweden and Israel, found that a family history of schizophrenia almost triples the risk of autism in children. Bipolar disorder had a similar, but lesser risk. “Our findings indicate that ASD, schizophrenia and bipolar disorders share etiologic risk factors,” the authors comment. The study appears this week in Archives of General Psychiatry.

Article → 

Sullivan, P., Magnussen, C., “Family History of Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder as Risk Factors for Autism,” Archives of General Psychiatry, 2012; ()1-5, (Online July 2, 2012)

Related MiA link:
British Psychological Society Critiques the DSM-5
Eye Movement and the Schizophrenia Diagnosis
Generalized Anxiety Disorder Does Not Meet Criteria for a Disorder
Overlap Between Borderline and Bipolar
Psychosis as a Basic “Disturbance of Self”

Related Items:
Family History of Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder May Up Kids’ Risk for Autism
Common Factors Suggested In Study Of Autism Spectrum Disorders, Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder
Autism, Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder May Share Common Underlying Factors, Family Histories Suggest
Bipolar Everywhere 


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Kermit Cole
Kermit Cole, MFT, founding editor of Mad in America, works in Santa Fe, New Mexico as a couples and family therapist. Inspired by Open Dialogue, he works as part of a team and consults with couples and families that have members identified as patients. His work in residential treatment — largely with severely traumatized and/or "psychotic" clients — led to an appreciation of the power and beauty of systemic philosophy and practice, as the alternative to the prevailing focus on individual pathology. A former film-maker, he has undergraduate and master's degrees in psychology from Harvard University, as well as an MFT degree from the Council for Relationships in Philadelphia. He is a doctoral candidate with the Taos Institute and the Free University of Brussels. You can reach him at [email protected].


  1. There is a very plausible explanation for the correlation among these diagnoses (not diseases) that doesn’t involve genetic factors. The children of parents with psychiatric diagnoses will get one themselves, very frequently if not always. Of course, those who know me know that was what happened to me.

    I don’t doubt that there really are such problems as schizophrenia, bipolar, and autism. But it is hard to tell who might really have such problems from those who are victims of psychiatrists’ enthusiastic labeling of as many people as they can get away with.

    In my case, I believe my mother really was crazy. But by labeling me as crazy too, the psychiatrists who tortured me and took away my childhood “proved” that schizophrenia was inherited.

    It is too bad that there is hardly any trustworthy psychiatric research. As I say, I do believe that some mental problems do have a biological base. But the research that is out there now is not designed to get at truth, but to create a rationale for drugging as many people as possible.

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  2. Ted, I’m sorry your mother was “crazy.” Sometimes people really do “go crazy” and it’s terrible when things get to that point. Fortunately, even people who “go crazy” can often come back if given a chance. ~ I’m deeply sorry, with respect, for those who didn’t/don’t get that chance.

    I’m posting my comment from the Stop Psychiatric Drugging of Children page over on facebook here, too. As it is relevant and, given that I once had to tell my kids, “If anyone ever says your Mom is crazy…just tell them that she loves you.” (Okay, I admit it, I also said “…just tell them she’s a genius and they might not understand.”)

    At any rate, here’s the repost of my – a person with a Bipolar 1 diagnosis who has a kid who was once diagnosed with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder – thoughts on the subject. I added a couple words, just for clarification.

    “Sorry this was long. I know I’m bad about that. This is something I actually think a lot about and it’s important to me because these are ideas that affect me and affect my children – as well as a lot of other kids. Thanks for letting me put my thoughts here.

    Please recognize that the following hypothetical musings are not in support of or endorsement of the biomedical model. That being said, it is worth acknowledging that many people do identify as neurodivergent on various spectrums. There are a lot of people who do think that their brains work differently, and that that is not necessarily a bad thing. There are striking similarities in self-reported modes of experience of people that carry certain diagnoses. Of course, this could be the result of integrating diagnostic criteria into your personhood ~ though usually the similarities I note with people in my “diagnostic family” have little to do with DSM criteria, they are more like the ways that we are a little out of step, a little behind, a little too far ahead, way over in left field, distracted by some little noise or big bright idea.

    What if whatever processing/sensory/expressive/interpretative tendencies that create experiences that may be a bit outside of the bell…well, what if there really are some differences? What if my differences are, in fact, my human strengths but because of increased “stress vulnerability” (due to the sheer volume of sensory input alone) I am prone to becoming overloaded with “stress hormones” (there’s your lousy “chemical imbalance”) that then create a chaotic and disordered/out-of-whack/under-pressure experience that can then become easily compounded with additional stressors, weakening my ability to manage my experience in such a way that things perceived as symptoms begin to arise? This is my understanding of my own experience.

    So, since I’ve already written too much, and I do apologize for that…have I ever told you my theory that “schizophrenia” is actually based in sensory processing and meaning integration, some process akin to synesthesia, which is also a made up word, but one that is less progressively malignant than “schizophrenia.” ? (…from the ancient Greek σύν, “together,” and αἴσθησις, “sensation,” is a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.)

    My angle on the tragedy of the mother~child “illness” is that my own children would hit criteria and my “diagnosis” would be a mark on the chart they.will.never.have That’s part of the reason I am so strident about taking apart these horrible ideas that wreck our whole understanding of what it means to be human. My son – in his own way – processes information similarly to me. He is a wonderful child who, if he ever went to a psychiatrist, would walk away with a diagnosis and a prescription…and he’s just a regular smart, sensitive, sweet, day-dreamy kid who notices and feels a lot, has some pretty intense states of being. My daughter is a high-spirited fireworks sort that doesn’t abide by sitting still and she has a brilliant mind for abstraction and finding lost things. She has only worn socks about 20 times in her entire 7 years. (We have a lot of talks about self-regulation skills and what to do if “upset.”)

    So, what if people who are a little “on the sensitive side” – if traumatized, develop a stressed network of associations that create powerful cognitive/emotional/whole-self experiences ~ as stress affects our (humans) entire body system in ways that create distressed experiences? The issue, so far as I’m concerned, is less about proving that there is no difference, and more about honoring the worth of human diversity and the beauty of human experience ~ recognizing the value of the “atypical” mind as a vital force in human cultures and societies…also, establishing accurate etiology is important in treating any disorder in society. I’d say any society that puts a 5 year old on Seroquel has some pretty serious problems.

    Thanks and with respect.

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  3. The first person in the family to be labeled ‘schizophrenic’ by a quack, will no doubt have heaps of exposure to the quackery that is psychiatry throughout their lives, and be more amenable and likely to drag their kid off to a shrink to get a label slapped on them at the first sign of any difficulty raising the kid.

    What this study has found, even though the clowns who conducted it don’t realize it yet, and won’t ever, is that families that believe in the BS that is psychiatry, are more likely to drag other family members to a quack shrink’s office for some labels and drugs.

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  4. But of course all three of those things are nothing but different judgments of social deviance. Since all personality traits are genetic, it stands to reason that social deviance will run in families. These professionals need to stop pretending like there really are separate real diseases of the brain that they are studying. If an adult grows up to be an introvert whose socially awkward and behaviorally inappropriate, he has HFA – high functioning autism. If he creates imaginary friends or begins acting out fantasies, he has schizophrenia. Any of those children they diagnosed with autism in that study could had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and been used in schizophrenia etiology studies had they had just shown some different behaviors or their behavior was interpreted differently by the doctor. These professionals need to begin acknowledging these things.

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  5. I am not surprised that the so called autistic spectrum and “schizophrenia” have a lot in common. I agree with Faith that these people are more sensitive than your average “normal person” and they have a different way of reacting to the world than the so called “normal people”- whatever that means. I think that they are as normal as the “normal people” just different and have the misfortune of living in a society that doesn’t suite them well. They want other things from life than what modern western culture has to offer.

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  6. Oh My God – they’ll be telling us that a miserable and horrid childhood can leave you frightened and confused soon.

    My slightly more serious point is that sometimes Schizophrenia, Bipolar and Autism are just psychiatry labelling people for no other reason than to justify their jobs and push some pills and sometimes they are attempts to apply labels that only professionals can understand to the various types of fear and confusion that can come from having had a very hard life.

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  7. i agree, and i think that what they are also not recognising is that often having a parent who has a psychiatric label and psychiatric treatment creates distress for the child, because it is distressing to have a parent who is experiencing distress and/or because it is distressing to have a parent who is being treated with psychiatric medications and/or shock treatment, both of which make the parent less engaged and present for the child. this child will be more likely to experience distress and therefore more likely to find themselves in the mental health system.

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    • This sounds like a couple of friends of mine who had mothers who were involved with the psychiatric system. Both mothers got forcibly detained.

      They both ended up using mental health services. Both had difficult relationships with their parents when they grew up.

      I think both of them had the experience of having their mothers being taken away, into hospital, and not being given adequate explanations. Neither were given adequate support when their mothers were at home and so distressed they were finding it hard to parent well either.

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      • my grandmother was taken away to hospital repeatedly, my mother was only 3 years old the first time, and she didn’t receive any support. when my grandmother would return from hospital, neither received support. when i was around 2, my mother received her psychiatric label.

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