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A (Very Brief) Primer On Genetics And Behavioral/Emotional/Developmental Disorders

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

This will be brief.

There continues to be loads of information on the role of genetics on behavioral/emotional/developmental disorders. This pace will continue. But the big picture for parents can be elusive. So here is a primer.

Some disorders  are “genetic” in the classic sense—meaning they primarily have a genetic foundation. They tend to be very rare and distinctive. Examples are Fragile-X syndrome, and Down syndrome.

That said, most disorders these days are assumed to be “complex”—meaning that they arise from a combination of risk factors, both genetic and non-genetic in origin. In many cases, there may not be “one” definitive etiology but rather a range of causes that can vary from kid to kid. For example, it is believed that some cases of autism are due to rare genetic mutations (some of which may be associated with paternal age). But this type of causation may only account for a small fraction of the cases in the population. There may be a number of genes (some suggest it could be in the hundreds) that convey some level of risk for autism. And for these cases, the environment can also be a potent influence, as evidenced by recent twin studies. That said, the actual environmental factors remain elusive.

This idea of “complex” causation probably applies to the vast majority of behavioral/emotional/developmental disorders. ADHD is believed to be highly heritable—but there are no genetic markers that distinguish normative levels of inattention and hyperactivity from problematic ones. And just because ADHD is heritable, that doesn’t mean that the environment doesn’t matter. Biological environments (such as prenatal exposures) may play a role. The psychosocial environment is also very important in terms of shaping how ADHD gets expressed. In the case of “complex” disorders, genetics is often described as influencing “what is,” but not “what can be”—which is another way of saying that psychosocial interventions can be powerful approaches for altering behaviors that are “genetic” in origin.

We’ve learned a lot about genetics over the past few decades. We will continue to learn even more. But the reality right now is that, with the exception of rare “genetic” disorders, there is still more unknown than known about the role that genes play in the evolution of behavioral/emotional/developmental disorders. What we do know, though, is that environment matters. So whether we are talking about autism or ADHD or conduct problems or other issues, a parent’s best line of action is to get reputable psychosocial interventions that have been shown to work. Remember, genetics is, more times than not, more about “what is” rather than “what can be.”

Lab Experiment via Shutterstock.com

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