The development of imitation during the second year of life plays an important role in domains of socio-cognitive development such as language and social learning. Deficits in imitation ability in persons with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have also been repeatedly documented from toddlerhood into adulthood, raising the possibility that early disruptions in imitation contribute to the onset of ASD and the deficits in language and social interaction that define the disorder. This study prospectively examined the development of imitation between 12 and 24 months of age in 154 infants at familial risk for ASD and 78 typically developing infants who were all later assessed at 36 months for ASD or other developmental delays. The study established a developmental measure of imitation ability, and examined group differences over time, using an analytic Rasch measurement model. Results revealed a unidimensional latent construct of imitation and verified a reliable sequence of imitation skills that was invariant over time for all outcome groups. Results also showed that all groups displayed similar significant linear increases in imitation ability between 12 and 24 months and that these increases were related to individual growth in both expressive language and ratings of social engagement, but not fine motor development. The group of children who developed ASD by age 3 years exhibited delayed imitation development compared to the low-risk typical outcome group across all time-points, but were indistinguishable from other high-risk infants who showed other cognitive delays not related to ASD.
imitation; autism; Rasch analysis; early identification; HGLM
The onset of autism is usually conceptualized as occurring in one of two patterns, an early onset and a regressive pattern. This study examined the number and shape of trajectories of symptom onset evident in coded home movies of children with autism and examined their correspondence with parent report of onset.
Four social-communicative behaviors were coded from the home video of children with autism (n = 52) or typical development (n = 23). All home video from 6 through 24 months of age was coded (3199 segments). Latent class modeling was used to characterize trajectories and determine the optimal number needed to describe the coded home video. These trajectories were then compared to parent report of onset patterns, as defined by the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised.
A three trajectory model best fit the data from the participants with autism. One trajectory displayed low levels of social-communication across time. A second trajectory displayed high levels of social-communication early in life, followed by a significant decline over time. A third trajectory displayed initial levels of behavior that were similar to the typically developing group, but little progress in social-communication with age. There was poor correspondence between home video-based trajectories and parent report of onset.
More than two onset categories may be needed to describe the ways in which symptoms emerge in children with autism. There is low agreement between parent report and home video, suggesting that methods for improving parent report of early development must be developed.
Autism; regression; onset; parent report
We examined whether metabolic conditions (MCs) during pregnancy (diabetes, hypertension, and obesity) are associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), developmental delays (DD), or impairments in specific domains of development in the offspring.
Children aged 2 to 5 years (517 ASD, 172 DD, and 315 controls) were enrolled in the CHARGE (Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment) study, a population-based, case-control investigation between January 2003 and June 2010. Eligible children were born in California, had parents who spoke English or Spanish, and were living with a biological parent in selected regions of California. Children’s diagnoses were confirmed by using standardized assessments. Information regarding maternal conditions was ascertained from medical records or structured interview with the mother.
All MCs were more prevalent among case mothers compared with controls. Collectively, these conditions were associated with a higher likelihood of ASD and DD relative to controls (odds ratio: 1.61 [95% confidence interval: 1.10–2.37; odds ratio: 2.35 [95% confidence interval: 1.43–3.88], respectively). Among ASD cases, children of women with diabetes had Mullen Scales of Early Learning (MSEL) expressive language scores 0.4 SD lower than children of mothers without MCs (P < .01). Among children without ASD, those exposed to any MC scored lower on all MSEL and Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales (VABS) subscales and composites by at least 0.4 SD (P < .01 for each subscale/composite).
Maternal MCs may be broadly associated with neurodevelopmental problems in children. With obesity rising steadily, these results appear to raise serious public health concerns.
autism; developmental delay; diabetes; epidemiology; hypertension; obesity
The recurrence risk of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is estimated to be between 3% and 10%, but previous research was limited by small sample sizes and biases related to ascertainment, reporting, and stoppage factors. This study used prospective methods to obtain an updated estimate of sibling recurrence risk for ASD.
A prospective longitudinal study of infants at risk for ASD was conducted by a multisite international network, the Baby Siblings Research Consortium. Infants (n = 664) with an older biological sibling with ASD were followed from early in life to 36 months, when they were classified as having or not having ASD. An ASD classification required surpassing the cutoff of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule and receiving a clinical diagnosis from an expert clinician.
A total of 18.7% of the infants developed ASD. Infant gender and the presence of >1 older affected sibling were significant predictors of ASD outcome, and there was an almost threefold increase in risk for male subjects and an additional twofold increase in risk if there was >1 older affected sibling. The age of the infant at study enrollment, the gender and functioning level of the infant's older sibling, and other demographic factors did not predict ASD outcome.
The sibling recurrence rate of ASD is higher than suggested by previous estimates. The size of the current sample and prospective nature of data collection minimized many limitations of previous studies of sibling recurrence. Clinical implications, including genetic counseling, are discussed.
autism; recurrence; sibling risk
This study examined the relationship between onset status and current functioning using a recently proposed onset classification system in 272 young children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Participants were classified into one of the following groups, based on parent report using the Autism Diagnostic Interview – Revised: Early Onset (symptoms by 12 months, no loss), Delay+Regression (symptoms by 12 months plus loss), Plateau (no early symptoms or loss), and Regression (no early symptoms, followed by loss). Findings indicate that current functioning does not differ according to onset pattern, calling into question the use of onset categorizations for prognostic purposes in children with ASD.
autism; regression; onset; symptom; outcomes
Infant sibling studies have been at the vanguard of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) research over the past decade, providing important new knowledge about the earliest emerging signs of ASD and expanding our understanding of the developmental course of this complex disorder. Studies focused on siblings of children with ASD also have unrealized potential for contributing to ASD etiologic research. Moving targeted time of enrollment back from infancy toward conception creates tremendous opportunities for optimally studying risk factors and risk biomarkers during the pre-, peri- and neonatal periods. By doing so, a traditional sibling study, which already incorporates close developmental follow-up of at-risk infants through the third year of life, is essentially reconfigured as an enriched-risk pregnancy cohort study. This review considers the enriched-risk pregnancy cohort approach of studying infant siblings in the context of current thinking on ASD etiologic mechanisms. It then discusses the key features of this approach and provides a description of the design and implementation strategy of one major ASD enriched-risk pregnancy cohort study: the Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation (EARLI).
Autism; Cohort; Epidemiology; Pregnancy; Prospective; Sibling; Study Design
Conversation is a primary area of difficultly for individuals with high-functioning autism (HFA) although they have unimpaired formal language abilities. This likely stems from the unstructured nature of face-to-face conversation as well as the need to coordinate other modes of communication (e.g. eye gaze) with speech. We conducted a quantitative analysis of both verbal exchange and gaze data obtained from conversations between children with HFA and an adult, compared with those of typically-developing children matched on language level. We examined a new question: How does speaking about a topic of interest affect reciprocity of verbal exchange and eye gaze? Conversations on generic topics were compared with those on individuals’ circumscribed interests, particularly intense interests characteristic of HFA. Two opposing hypotheses were evaluated. Speaking about a topic of interest may improve reciprocity in conversation by increasing participants’ motivation and engagement. Alternatively, it could engender more one-sided interaction, given the engrossing nature of circumscribed interests. In their verbal exchanges HFA participants demonstrated decreased reciprocity during the interest topic, evidenced by fewer contingent utterances and more monologue-style speech. Moreover, a measure of stereotyped behaviour and restricted interest symptoms was inversely related to reciprocal verbal exchange. However, both the HFA and comparison groups looked significantly more to their partner’s face during the interest than generic topic. Our interpretation of results across modalities is that circumscribed interests led HFA participants to be less adaptive to their partner verbally, but speaking about a highly practiced topic allowed for increased gaze to the partner. The function of this increased gaze to partner may differ for the HFA and comparison groups.
conversation; high-functioning autism; eye-gaze; circumscribed interests; restricted and repetitive behaviours
Executive functions deficits are among the most frequently reported symptoms of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), however, there have been few functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies that investigate the neural substrates of executive functions deficits in ASDs, and only one in adolescents. The current study examined cognitive control –the ability to maintain task context online to support adaptive functioning in the face of response competition—in 22 adolescents aged 12–18 with autism spectrum disorders and 23 age, gender, and IQ matched typically developing subjects. During the cue phase of the task, where subjects must maintain information online to overcome a prepotent response tendency, typically developing subjects recruited significantly more anterior frontal (BA 10), parietal (BA 7, 40), and occipital regions (BA 18) for high control trials (25% of trials) versus low control trials (75% of trials). Both groups showed similar activation for low control cues, however the ASD group exhibited significantly less activation for high control cues. Functional connectivity analysis using time series correlation, factor analysis, and beta series correlation methods provided convergent evidence that the ASD group exhibited lower levels of functional connectivity and less network integration between frontal, parietal, and occipital regions. In the typically developing group, fronto-parietal connectivity was related to lower error rates on high control trials. In the autism group, reduced fronto-parietal connectivity was related to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms.
autism spectrum disorders; cognitive control; executive functions; fMRI; functional connectivity; attention deficit disorder
Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) represent a group of childhood neurodevelopmental and neuropsychiatric disorders characterized by deficits in verbal communication, impairment of social interaction, and restricted and repetitive patterns of interests and behaviour. To identify common genetic risk factors underlying ASDs, here we present the results of genome-wide association studies on a cohort of 780 families (3,101 subjects) with affected children, and a second cohort of 1,204 affected subjects and 6,491 control subjects, all of whom were of European ancestry. Six single nucleotide polymorphisms between cadherin 10 (CDH10) and cadherin 9 (CDH9)—two genes encoding neuronal cell-adhesion molecules—revealed strong association signals, with the most significant SNP being rs4307059 (P = 3.4 × 10−8, odds ratio = 1.19). These signals were replicated in two independent cohorts, with combined P values ranging from 7.4 × 10−8 to 2.1 × 10−10. Our results implicate neuronal cell-adhesion molecules in the pathogenesis of ASDs, and represent, to our knowledge, the first demonstration of genome-wide significant association of common variants with susceptibility to ASDs.
Deferred imitation has long held a privileged position in early cognitive development, considered an early marker of representational thought with links to language development and symbolic processes. Children with autism have difficulties with several abilities generally thought to be related to deferred imitation: immediate imitation, language, and symbolic play. However, few studies have examined deferred imitation in early autism. The present study examined both deferred, spontaneous imitation and immediate, elicited imitation on a set of carefully matched tasks in 36 young children with autism: 16 with early onset autism, 20 with regressive autism and two contrast groups, younger typically developing children (n = 20) and age matched children with significant developmental delays (n = 21). Analyses of co-variance controlling for differences in verbal mental age revealed significant main effects for task, but no main effect of group and no interaction of task by group. Deferred imitation scores were lower than immediate imitation scores for all groups. Imitation performance was related to overall intellectual functioning for all groups, and there were moderate and significant relations between imitation in the immediate elicited condition and in the spontaneous deferred condition for all groups. Finally, there were no differences between onset subgroups in imitation scores, suggesting that the two share a similar phenotype involving both types of imitation.
Autistic disorder; development; developmental delay; mental retardation; pervasive developmental disorder; preschool children; imitation
This study was designed to examine the nature of object imitation performance in early autism. We hypothesized that imitation would be relatively preserved when behaviors on objects resulted in salient instrumental effects. We designed tasks in which, in one condition, the motor action resulted in a salient, meaningful effect on an object, whereas in the other condition, the same action resulted in a less salient effect because of differing object characteristics. The motor aspects of the tasks did not vary across conditions. Four participant groups of 2- to 5-year-olds were examined: 17 children with early-onset autism, 24 children with regressive onset autism, 22 children with developmental delays, and 22 children with typical development. Groups were matched on nonverbal skills, and differences in verbal development were examined as a moderator of imitative ability. Results revealed an interaction of group by condition, with the combined autism group failing more tasks than the combined comparison groups, and failing more tasks in the less salient condition than in the more salient condition, as hypothesized. Analyses of autism subgroups revealed these effects were primarily because of the regression onset group. Accuracy of motor performance was examined by analyzing errors. Among children passing imitative acts, there were no group differences and no condition effects in the number, type, or pattern of performance errors. Among children passing the tasks, the group with autism did not demonstrate more emulation errors (imitating the goal but not the means) than other groups. There was no evidence that either motor or attentional aspects of the tasks contributed to the poorer imitative performance of the children with autism.
This paper presents follow-up longitudinal data to research that previously suggested the possibility of abnormal gaze behavior marked by decreased eye contact in a subgroup of 6-month-old infants at risk for autism (Merin et al., 2007). Using eye-tracking data and behavioral data recorded during a live mother-infant interaction involving the still-face procedure, the predictive utility of gaze behavior and affective behaviors at 6 months was examined using diagnostic outcome data obtained longitudinally over the following 18 months. Results revealed that none of the infants previously identified as showing lower rates of eye-contact had any signs of autism at outcome. In contrast, three infants who were diagnosed with autism demonstrated consistent gaze to the eye region and typical affective responses at 6 months. Individual differences in face scanning and affective responsivity during the live interaction were not related to any continuous measures of symptom frequency or symptom severity. In contrast, results of growth curve models for language development revealed significant relationships between face scanning and expressive language. Greater amounts of fixation to the mother’s mouth during live interaction predicted higher levels of expressive language at outcome and greater rates of growth. These findings suggest that although gaze behavior at 6 months may not provide early markers for autism as initially conceived, gaze to the mouth in particular may be useful in predicting individual differences in language development.
autism; eye tracking; language development; early identification; speech perception
To examine prospectively the emergence of behavioral signs of autism in the first years of life in infants at low and high risk for autism.
A prospective longitudinal design was used to compare 25 infants later diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) with 25 gender-matched low-risk children later determined to have typical development. Participants were evaluated at 6, 12, 18, 24, and 36 months of age. Frequencies of gaze to faces, social smiles, and directed vocalizations were coded from video and rated by examiners.
The frequency of gaze to faces, shared smiles, and vocalizations to others were highly comparable between groups at 6 months of age, but significantly declining trajectories over time were apparent in the group later diagnosed with ASD. Group differences were significant by 12 months of age on most variables. Although repeated evaluation documented loss of skills in most infants with ASD, most parents did not report a regression in their child’s development.
These results suggest that behavioral signs of autism are not present at birth, as once suggested by Kanner, but emerge over time through a process of diminishment of key social communication behaviors. More children may present with a regressive course than previously thought, but parent report methods do not capture this phenomenon well. Implications for onset classification systems and clinical screening are also discussed.
Autism; Onset; Infancy; Regression
This prospective study examined object exploration behavior in 66 12-month-old infants, of whom nine were subsequently diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Previous investigations differ on when the repetitive behaviors characteristic of autism are first present in early development. A task was developed that afforded specific opportunities for a range of repetitive uses of objects and was coded blind to outcome status. The autism/ASD outcome group displayed significantly more spinning, rotating, and unusual visual exploration of objects than two comparison groups. The average unusual visual exploration score of the autism/ASD group was over four standard deviations above the mean of the group with no concerns at outcome. Repetitive behaviors at 12 months were significantly related to cognitive and symptomatic status at 36 month outcome. These results suggest that repetitive or stereotyped behaviors may be present earlier than initially thought in very young children developing the autism phenotype.
autism; diagnosis; early identification; repetitive behavior
To study the relationship between parent concerns about development in the first year and a half of life and later autism diagnostic outcomes.
Parent concerns about development were collected for infants at high and low risk for autism, using a prospective, longitudinal design. Parents were asked about developmental concerns at study intake and when their infant was 6, 12, and 18 months. Infants were then followed up until 36 months, when diagnostic status was determined.
By the time their child was 12 months, parents who have an older child with autism reported significantly more concerns in autism spectrum disorders-related areas than parents of children with typical outcomes. These concerns were significantly related to independent measures of developmental status and autism symptoms and helped predict which infants would later be diagnosed with autism or autism spectrum disorders. At 6 months, however, the concerns of parents who have an older child with autism do not predict outcome well.
Explicitly probing for parent concerns about development is useful for identifying children in need of closer monitoring and surveillance, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
We investigated whether deficits in social gaze and affect and in joint attention behaviors are evident within the first year of life among siblings of children with autism who go on to be diagnosed with autism or ASD (ASD) and siblings who are non-diagnosed (NoASD-sib) compared to low-risk controls. The ASD group did not differ from the other two groups at 6 months of age in the frequency of gaze, smiles, and vocalizations directed toward the caregiver, nor in their sensitivity to her withdrawal from interaction. However, by 12 months, infants in the ASD group exhibited lower rates of joint attention and requesting behaviors. In contrast, NoASD-sibs did not differ from comparison infants on any variables of interest at 6 and 12 months.
Autism; Broader autism phenotype; Early identification; Mother–infant interaction; Still face procedure; Nonverbal communication
Executive functioning (EF) is an overarching term that refers to neuropsychological processes that enable physical, cognitive, and emotional self-control. Deficits in EF are often present in neurodevelopmental disorders, but the specificity of EF deficits and direct comparison across disorders is rare. The current study investigated EF in 7 to 12 year old children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and typical development using a comprehensive battery of measures assessing EF, including response inhibition, working memory, cognitive flexibility, planning, fluency and vigilance. The ADHD group exhibited deficits in vigilance, inhibition and working memory relative to the typical group; however, they did not consistently demonstrate problems on the remaining EF measures. Children with ASD showed significant deficits in vigilance compared to the typical group, and significant differences in response inhibition, cognitive flexibility/switching, and working memory compared to both groups. These results lend support for previous findings that show children with autism demonstrate generalized and profound impairment in EF. In addition, the observed deficits in vigilance and inhibitory control suggest that a significant number of children with ASD present with cognitive profiles consistent with ADHD.
attention; inhibition; comorbidity; working memory; CANTAB; IVA; vigilance
Previous conceptualizations of autism have suggested that symptoms are evident either early in the first year of life or later in the second year, after a loss of previously acquired skills. New research suggests, however, that these two patterns do not capture all the different ways autism can emerge. For example, some children show a developmental plateau marked by failure to progress, while other children display mixed features, with both early delays and later losses evident. This paper reviews the literature on autism onset, discusses problems with the traditional ways in which onset has been conceptualized, and provides recommendations for future research. We suggest that onset is better thought of as a dimensional process rather than dichotomous categories.
Onset; regression; infancy; early identification
With increased public awareness of the early signs and recent American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations that all 18- and 24-month-olds be screened for autism spectrum disorders, there is an increasing need for diagnostic assessment of very young children. However, unique challenges exist in applying current diagnostic guidelines for autism spectrum disorders to children under the age of 2 years. In this article, we address challenges related to early detection, diagnosis, and treatment of autism spectrum disorders in this age group. We provide a comprehensive review of findings from recent studies on the early development of children with autism spectrum disorders, summarizing current knowledge on early signs of autism spectrum disorders, the screening properties of early detection tools, and current best practice for diagnostic assessment of autism spectrum disorders before 2 years of age. We also outline principles of effective intervention for children under the age of 2 with suspected/confirmed autism spectrum disorders. It is hoped that ongoing studies will provide an even stronger foundation for evidence-based diagnostic and intervention approaches for this critically important age group.
autism; early detection; toddlers; longitudinal studies; child development
We observed infant siblings of children with autism later diagnosed with ASD (ASD siblings; n = 17), infant siblings of children with autism with and without other delays (Other Delays and No Delays siblings; n = 12 and n = 19, respectively) and typically developing controls (TD controls; n = 19) during a free-play task at 18 months of age. Functional, symbolic, and repeated play actions were coded. ASD siblings showed fewer functional and more non-functional repeated play behaviors than TD controls. Other Delays and No Delays siblings showed more non-functional repeated play than TD controls. Group differences disappeared with the inclusion of verbal mental age. Play as an early indicator of autism and its relationship to the broader autism phenotype is discussed.
Autism spectrum disorders; Functional play; Symbolic play; Repetitive behaviors; Play; Infant siblings of children with autism
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are characterized by impairment in social interactions, communication deficits, and restricted repetitive interests and behaviors. There is evidence of both immune dysregulation and autoimmune phenomena in autism. We examined the regulatory cytokine transforming growth factor beta-1 (TGFβ1) because of its role in controlling immune responses. Plasma levels of active TGFβ1 were evaluated in 75 children with ASD compared with 96 controls. Children with ASD had significantly lower plasma TGFβ1 levels compared with typically developing controls (p=0.0017) and compared with children with developmental disabilities other than ASD (p=0.0037) but not siblings, after adjusting for age and gender. In addition, there were significant correlations between psychological measures and TGFβ1 levels, such that lower TGFβ1 levels were associated with lower adaptive behaviors and worse behavioral symptoms. The data suggest that immune responses in autism may be inappropriately regulated due to reductions in TGFβ1. Such immune dysregulation may predispose to the development of possible autoimmune responses and/or adverse neuroimmune interactions during critical windows in development.
Cognitive control refers to the ability to flexibly allocate mental resources to guide thoughts and actions in light of internal goals. Given the behavioral inflexibility exhibited by individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), it would appear they experience cognitive control deficits. Cognitive correlates of this behavioral inflexibility have been elusive in previous investigations. Study goals were to investigate deficits in cognitive control in ASDs; to explore its developmental trajectory; and to test whether control deficits are related to symptoms of inflexible thoughts and/or behaviors, and attention symptoms. Thirty-one children and adolescents aged 8 to17 with ASDs and 32 age, IQ, and gender matched control subjects completed cognitive, diagnostic, and behavorial assessments, as well as a measure of cognitive control involving overcoming a prepotent response tendency. Compared with typically developing control subjects, individuals with ASDs exhibited deficits in cognitive control. Younger children with ASDs did not demonstrate age related improvements in cognitive control. Modest relationships between cognitive control, IQ, and attention problems were found for the sample. Only the relationship between cognitive control and Full Scale IQ survived correction for multiple comparisons.
autism; Asperger Syndrome; PDDNOS; executive functions; cognitive control; neuroscience; prefrontal cortex