The Broad Autism Phenotype: Just a Little Bit of Autism

Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning a person can be a little autistic or very autistic, and individuals can have varying symptoms. The term broad autism phenotype describes an even wider range of individuals who exhibit problems with personality, language, and social-behavioral characteristics at a level that is considered to be higher than average but lower than is diagnosable with autism. Individuals who meet the criteria of the broad autism phenotype are identified through a test called the "Social Responsiveness Scale."

A child lining up crayons
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It is theorized that parents who are a part of the broad autism phenotype are more likely than other parents to have multiple children with autism. Some studies seem to support this theory.

Traits That May Suggest You Have a "Touch" of Autism

To be diagnosable, symptoms of autism must actually interfere with an individual's ability to take part in or complete activities of daily life. The symptoms must also have been in existence from an early age. So, for example:

Social communication difficulties are always present in autism. Many people have social communication difficulties that make it tough to find friends, build romantic relationships, or function well at parties. People with autism aren't merely socially awkward, though: they may find it literally impossible to pick up on social cues, ask and answer questions appropriately, or even use spoken language at all.

Over- or under-responsiveness to sensory input is now a criterion for diagnosing autism. Many people have sensory challenges, and a surprisingly large number are actually diagnosable with a sensory processing disorder. Most people with autism, however, don't simply over-react to noise or light. Rather, they may find it impossible to attend movies, ride the subway, or even go to the mall because of their intense response to light and sound. Alternatively, they may only be able to calm themselves when they are wrapped tightly in a blanket or otherwise being "squeezed," jumping, etc.

A need for repetition and a preference for routine are included in the criteria for autism. Many people like doing, seeing, eating, or watching the same things over and over again, and many prefer predictable routines. People with autism, however, may open and close a door over and over again, listen to the same song ten times in a row, or have no interests outside of a particular television show or movie. They also can become extremely anxious and overwhelmed when required to change plans or adapt to a new situation.

People who fit into the Broad Autism Phenotype have all of these traits at a mild level. In essence, they are more likely than their typical peers to have sensory and social challenges, prefer repetition and routine, and have "passions" that keep them focused on just one intense area of interest. 

How the Broad Autism Phenotype (BAP) Is Diagnosed

Several different people have developed questionnaires to evaluate individuals for "BAP." People using the questionnaire are asked to rank themselves on a scale of 1-5 on such statements as:

  • I like being around other people
  • I find it hard to get my words out smoothly
  • I am comfortable with unexpected changes in plans
  • I would rather talk to people to get information than to socialize

Answers to these questions are compared to a norm and, at least in theory, provide a quick answer to the question "am I just a touch autistic?"

Unfortunately, the results of these evaluative questionnaires vary radically. According to the Kennedy Krieger Institute, in one study of parents with autistic children:

"The researchers used three different assessment tools. They found that a small percentage of the parents had the BAP, but how many parents depended on the tool used. The percentage of parents with the BAP ranged from almost none to 12 percent, depending on the test.

"What explains these differences between assessment tools? It may be that each one measures a different concept of the BAP. Another explanation may be found in the way each assessment was conducted. One assessment was completed by the parent herself, another by her partner, and the third by a researcher."

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4 Sources
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  1. Rubenstein E, Chawla D. Broader autism phenotype in parents of children with autism: a systematic review of percentage estimatesJ Child Fam Stud. 2018;27(6):1705–1720. doi:10.1007/s10826-018-1026-3

  2. Gerdts J, Bernier R. The broader autism phenotype and its implications on the etiology and treatment of autism spectrum disordersAutism Res Treat. 2011;2011:545901. doi:10.1155/2011/545901

  3. Autism Speaks. Social Communication Disorder & how it's treated. Autism Speaks. [online]. 2019. 

  4. Rubenstein E, Chawla D. Broader autism phenotype in parents of children with autism: a systematic review of percentage estimates. J Child Fam Stud. 2018;27(6):1705-1720. doi:10.1007/s10826-018-1026-3

Additional Reading
  • Sarris, Marina. What Does It Mean to Have Just a Hint of Autism? Interactive Autism Network at Kennedy Krieger Institute. Web. December 11, 2014.

  • Sasson, N. J., Lam, K. S. L., Childress, D., Parlier, M., Daniels, J. L. and Piven, J. The Broad Autism Phenotype Questionnaire: Prevalence and Diagnostic Classification. Autism Res, 2013. 6: 134–143. doi:10.1002/aur.1272.

  • Losh M, Childress D, Lam K, Piven J. Defining Key Features of the Broad Autism Phenotype: A Comparison Across Parents of Multiple- and Single-Incidence Autism Families. Am J Med Genet B Neuropsychiatr Genet. 2008 Jun 5;147B(4):424-33.