Do Apparent Overlaps between Schizophrenia and Autistic Spectrum Disorders Reflect Superficial Similarities or Etiological Commonalities?

William S. Stone, PhD, Lisa Iguchi, PhD


Study Background: Schizophrenia and autism are both neurodevelopmental disorders that were once considered to be the same disorder expressed in different developmental periods. Although they were separated diagnostically about 40 years ago, they share several clinical and possibly, etiological features. This paper reviews overlaps in four domains of function to consider the issue of whether these similarities are sporadic and likely to represent superficial similarities, or whether the disorders are more likely to share some features in common.

Methods: Representative areas of function were reviewed and compared for aspects of cognition (nonverbal reasoning, memory and language), social function (orienting / joint attention, eye contact and theory of mind), brain function (structural differences) and genetics. To facilitate comparisons with schizophrenia, a focus on high functioning autism / Asperger’s disorder was utilized, particularly in the sections on cognition and social function.

Results: Significant similarities (and differences) characterized comparisons in each domain. 

Conclusions: Disturbed function in similar clinical (in cognition and social function), neurobiological (brain volumes) and genetic (e.g., involvement of the same genes or chromosomal locations) domains in autism and schizophrenia supports the hypothesis that while they are distinct disorders, they are not entirely unique. Additional studies of similarities and differences between them may thus shed light on common etiological mechanisms and hopefully, facilitate the development of novel treatment targets.


autistic spectrum disorder, cognition, social cognition, schizophrenia spectrum disorder

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