Greater facial asymmetry has been consistently found in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) relative to children without ASD. There is substantial evidence that both facial structure and the recurrence of ASD diagnosis are highly heritable within a nuclear family. Furthermore, sub-clinical levels of autistic-like behavioural characteristics have also been reported in first-degree relatives of individuals with ASD, commonly known as the ‘broad autism phenotype’. Therefore, the aim of the current study was to examine whether a broad autism phenotype expresses as facial asymmetry among 192 biological parents of autistic individuals (134 mothers) compared to those of 163 age-matched adults without a family history of ASD (113 females). Using dense surface-modelling techniques on three dimensional facial images, we found evidence for greater facial asymmetry in parents of autistic individuals compared to age-matched adults in the comparison group (p = 0.046, d = 0.21 [0.002, 0.42]). Considering previous findings and the current results, we conclude that facial asymmetry expressed in the facial morphology of autistic children may be related to heritability factors.
Lay Abstract: In a previous study, we showed that autistic children presented with greater facial asymmetry than non-autistic children. In the current study, we examined the amount of facial asymmetry shown on three-dimensional facial images of 192 parents of autistic children compared to a control group consisting of 163 similarly aged adults with no known history of autism. Although parents did show greater levels of facial asymmetry than those in the control group, this effect is statistically small. We concluded that the facial asymmetry previously found in autistic children may be related to genetic factors.
- autism spectrum disorder
- broad autism phenotype
- facial asymmetry
- facial morphology