Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is highly heterogeneous in its etiology and manifestation. The neurobiological processes underlying ASD development are reflected in multiple features, from behaviour and cognition to brain functioning. An integrated analysis of these features may optimize the identification of these processes.
We examined cognitive and adaptive functioning and ASD symptoms between 8 and 36 months in 161 infants at familial high risk for ASD and 71 low-risk controls; we also examined neural sensitivity to eye gaze at 8 months in a subsample of 140 high-risk and 61 low-risk infants. We used linked independent component analysis to extract patterns of variation across domains and development, and we selected the patterns significantly associated with clinical classification at 36 months.
An early process at 8 months, indicating high levels of functioning and low levels of symptoms linked to higher attention to gaze shifts, was reduced in infants who developed ASD. A longitudinal process of increasing functioning and low levels of symptoms was reduced in infants who developed ASD, and another process suggesting a stagnation in cognitive functioning at 24 months was increased in infants who developed ASD.
Although the results showed a clear significant trend relating to clinical classification, we found substantial overlap between groups.
We uncovered underlying processes that acted together early in development and were associated with clinical outcomes. Our results highlighted the complexity of emerging ASD, which goes beyond the borders of clinical categories. Future work should integrate genetic data to investigate the specific genetic risks linked to these processes.