Modeling flexible behavior in childhood to adulthood shows age-dependent learning mechanisms and less optimal learning in autism in each age group.
Flexible behavior is critical for everyday decision-making and has been implicated in restricted, repetitive behaviors (RRB) in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, how flexible behavior changes developmentally in ASD remains largely unknown. Here, we used a developmental approach and examined flexible behavior on a probabilistic reversal learning task in 572 children, adolescents, and adults (ASD N = 321; typical development [TD] N = 251). Using computational modeling, we quantified latent variables that index mechanisms underlying perseveration and feedback sensitivity. We then assessed these variables in relation to diagnosis, developmental stage, core autism symptomatology, and associated psychiatric symptoms. Autistic individuals showed on average more perseveration and less feedback sensitivity than TD individuals, and, across cases and controls, older age groups showed more feedback sensitivity than younger age groups. Computational modeling revealed that dominant learning mechanisms underpinning flexible behavior differed across developmental stages and reduced flexible behavior in ASD was driven by less optimal learning on average within each age group. In autistic children, perseverative errors were positively related to anxiety symptoms, and in autistic adults, perseveration (indexed by both task errors and model parameter estimates) was positively related to RRB. These findings provide novel insights into reduced flexible behavior in relation to clinical symptoms in ASD.