Predictors of Suicidal Thoughts in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Anxiety or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: The Unique Contribution of Externalizing Behaviors

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are at elevated risk of suicidal ideation, particularly those with comorbid anxiety disorders and/or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). We investigated the risk factors associated with suicidal ideation in 166 children with ASD and comorbid anxiety disorders/OCD, and the unique contribution of externalizing behaviors. Suicidal ideation was reported in the child sample by 13% of parents. Controlling for child age, sex, and IQ, perceived loneliness positively predicted the likelihood of suicidal ideation. In addition, externalizing behaviors positively predicted suicidal ideation, controlling for all other factors. Reliance on parental report to detect suicidal ideation in youth with ASD is a limitation of this study. Nonetheless, these findings highlight the importance of assessing and addressing suicidal ideation in children with ASD and comorbid anxiety disorders/OCD, and more importantly in those with elevated externalizing behaviors and perceptions of loneliness.

Keywords: ASD; Anxiety; Externalizing behaviors; OCD; Suicidal thoughts.

Awareness of autism has grown monumentally over the past 20 years. Yet, this increased awareness has not been accompanied by improvements in services to support autistic individuals and their families. Many fundamental questions remain about the care of people with autism—including which interventions are effective, for whom, when, and at what intensity. The Lancet Commission on the future of care and clinical research in autism aims to answer the question of what can be done in the next 5 years to address the current needs of autistic individuals and families worldwide

Background: Marked sex differences in autism prevalence accentuate the need to understand the role of biological sex-related factors in autism. Efforts to unravel sex differences in the brain organization of autism have, however, been challenged by the limited availability of female data.

Methods: We addressed this gap by using a large sample of males and females with autism and neurotypical (NT) control individuals (ABIDE; Autism: 362 males, 82 females; NT: 409 males, 166 females; 7-18 years). Discovery analyses examined main effects of diagnosis, sex and their interaction across five resting-state fMRI (R-fMRI) metrics (voxel-level Z > 3.1, cluster-level P < 0.01, gaussian random field corrected). Secondary analyses assessed the robustness of the results to different pre-processing approaches and their replicability in two independent samples: the EU-AIMS Longitudinal European Autism Project (LEAP) and the Gender Explorations of Neurogenetics and Development to Advance Autism Research.

Results: Discovery analyses in ABIDE revealed significant main effects of diagnosis and sex across the intrinsic functional connectivity of the posterior cingulate cortex, regional homogeneity and voxel-mirrored homotopic connectivity (VMHC) in several cortical regions, largely converging in the default network midline. Sex-by-diagnosis interactions were confined to the dorsolateral occipital cortex, with reduced VMHC in females with autism. All findings were robust to different pre-processing steps. Replicability in independent samples varied by R-fMRI measures and effects with the targeted sex-by-diagnosis interaction being replicated in the larger of the two replication samples-EU-AIMS LEAP.

Limitations: Given the lack of a priori harmonization among the discovery and replication datasets available to date, sample-related variation remained and may have affected replicability.

Conclusions: Atypical cross-hemispheric interactions are neurobiologically relevant to autism. They likely result from the combination of sex-dependent and sex-independent factors with a differential effect across functional cortical networks. Systematic assessments of the factors contributing to replicability are needed and necessitate coordinated large-scale data collection across studies.

Keywords: Autism spectrum disorder; Replication; Resting-state functional connectivity; Robustness; Sex differences; Voxel-mirrored homotopic connectivity.

A recent theory posits that prediction deficits may underlie the core symptoms in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, empirical evidence for this hypothesis is minimal. Using a visual extrapolation task, we tested motion prediction abilities in children and adolescents with and without ASD. We examined the factors known to be important for motion prediction: the central-tendency response bias and smooth pursuit eye movements. In ASD, response biases followed an atypical trajectory that was dominated by early responses. This differed from controls who exhibited response biases that reflected a gradual accumulation of knowledge about stimulus statistics. Moreover, while better smooth pursuit eye movements for the moving object were linked to more accurate motion prediction in controls, in ASD, better smooth pursuit was counterintuitively linked to a more pronounced early response bias. Together, these results demonstrate atypical visual prediction abilities in ASD and offer insights into possible mechanisms underlying the observed differences.

Keywords: Autism; eye movements; perception; prediction; vision.

Psychosis rates in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are 5-35% higher than in the general population. The overlap in sensory and attentional processing abnormalities highlights the possibility of related neurobiological substrates. Previous research has shown that several electroencephalography (EEG)-derived event-related potential (ERP) components that are abnormal in schizophrenia, including P300, are also abnormal in individuals at Clinical High Risk (CHR) for psychosis and predict conversion to psychosis. Yet, it is unclear whether P300 is similarly sensitive to psychosis risk in help-seeking CHR individuals with ASD history. In this exploratory study, we leveraged data from the North American Prodrome Longitudinal Study (NAPLS2) to probe for the first time EEG markers of longitudinal psychosis profiles in ASD. Specifically, we investigated the P300 ERP component and its sensitivity to psychosis conversion across CHR groups with (ASD+) and without (ASD-) comorbid ASD. Baseline EEG data were analyzed from 304 CHR patients (14 ASD+; 290 ASD-) from the NAPLS2 cohort who were followed longitudinally over two years. We examined P300 amplitude to infrequent Target (10%; P3b) and Novel distractor (10%; P3a) stimuli from visual and auditory oddball tasks. Whereas P300 amplitude attenuation is typically characteristic of CHR and predictive of conversion to psychosis in non-ASD sample, in our sample, history of ASD moderated this relationship such that, in CHR/ASD+ individuals, enhanced – rather than attenuated – visual P300 (regardless of stimulus type) was associated with psychosis conversion. This pattern was also seen for auditory P3b amplitude to Target stimuli. Though drawn from a small sample of CHR individuals with ASD, these preliminary results point to a paradoxical effect, wherein those with both CHR and ASD history who go on to develop psychosis have a unique pattern of enhanced neural response during attention orienting to both visual and target stimuli. Such a pattern stands out from the usual finding of P300 amplitude reductions predicting psychosis in non-ASD CHR populations and warrants follow up in larger scale, targeted, longitudinal studies of those with ASD at clinical high risk for psychosis.

Keywords: EEG; P300; autism spectrum disorder; conversion; prodrome; psychosis.

The purpose of the current study was to assess meaningful variability in visual-perceptual skills using a standardized assessment of visual perception, the Test of Visual Perceptual Skills (TVPS), across children with and without autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In addition to assessing overall accuracy across subtests of the TVPS, we also assessed response variability at the item-level, and the linear relationship between quantitative measures of ASD symptoms, task performance, and item-level variance. We report a significant linear relationship between ASD features and performance on the TVPS Figure Ground subtest. Additionally, results of an item-level analysis point to a significant relationship between within-task variability on the Figure Ground subtest and quantitative ASD traits, with a less variable response pattern being associated with increased ASD symptoms. Findings presented here suggest variability in perceptual processing across ASD may be influenced by individual differences in trait distribution.

Keywords: TVPS; autism; global-local processing; individual differences; visual perception.

Racial differences in parent report of concerns about their child’s development to healthcare providers may contribute to delayed autism spectrum disorder diagnoses in Black children. We tested the hypotheses that compared to White parents, Black parents of children with autism spectrum disorder would report fewer concerns about autism symptoms and would be more likely to report concerns about disruptive behaviors. A sample of 18- to 40-month-old toddlers ( N = 174) with autism spectrum disorder and their parent participated. After screening positive for autism spectrum disorder risk, but prior to a diagnostic evaluation, parents completed free-response questions soliciting concerns about their child’s development. Parent responses were coded for the presence or the absence of 10 possible concerns, which were grouped into autism concerns (e.g. social and restricted and repetitive behavior concerns) or non-autism concerns (e.g. general developmental and disruptive behavior concerns). Compared to White parents, Black parents reported significantly fewer autism concerns and fewer social and restricted and repetitive behavior concerns. However, Black parents did not report significantly fewer non-autism concerns. Race did not influence parent report of disruptive behavior concerns. Lower reporting of autism concerns by Black parents may impact providers’ abilities to identify children who need further screening or evaluation.

Most genetic risk for psychiatric disease lies in regulatory regions, implicating pathogenic dysregulation of gene expression and splicing. However, comprehensive assessments of transcriptomic organization in diseased brains are limited. In this work, we integrated genotypes and RNA sequencing in brain samples from 1695 individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, as well as controls. More than 25% of the transcriptome exhibits differential splicing or expression, with isoform-level changes capturing the largest disease effects and genetic enrichments. Coexpression networks isolate disease-specific neuronal alterations, as well as microglial, astrocyte, and interferon-response modules defining previously unidentified neural-immune mechanisms. We integrated genetic and genomic data to perform a transcriptome-wide association study, prioritizing disease loci likely mediated by cis effects on brain expression. This transcriptome-wide characterization of the molecular pathology across three major psychiatric disorders provides a comprehensive resource for mechanistic insight and therapeutic development.

The role of de novo mutations in regulatory elements affecting genes associated with developmental disorders, or other genes, has been essentially unexplored. We identified de novo mutations in three classes of putative regulatory elements in almost 8,000 patients with developmental disorders. Here we show that de novo mutations in highly evolutionarily conserved fetal brain-active elements are significantly and specifically enriched in neurodevelopmental disorders. We identified a significant twofold enrichment of recurrently mutated elements. We estimate that, genome-wide, 1-3% of patients without a diagnostic coding variant carry pathogenic de novo mutations in fetal brain-active regulatory elements and that only 0.15% of all possible mutations within highly conserved fetal brain-active elements cause neurodevelopmental disorders with a dominant mechanism. Our findings represent a robust estimate of the contribution of de novo mutations in regulatory elements to this genetically heterogeneous set of disorders, and emphasize the importance of combining functional and evolutionary evidence to identify regulatory causes of genetic disorders.

OBJECTIVE: Many states with mandates requiring commercial insurers to cover autism spectrum disorder (ASD) health services specify upper age limits above which coverage is no longer mandated. It is unknown what effects these age caps have on health service use and spending among adolescents who have exceeded the age cap.

METHOD: Using administrative claims data from 3 national commercial insurers, a difference-in-differences approach was used to estimate effects of age caps on health service use and spending among adolescents with ASD. Statistical models compared changes in use and spending between those above versus below the age cap among individuals eligible versus ineligible for mandated coverage. The analytic sample included data from 2008 through 2012 on 7,845 individuals (151,976 person-months) ages 10 to 21 years in 11 states imposing mandate age caps going into effect during adolescence.

RESULTS: Age caps were associated with 4.2 percentage point (95% CI = -7.0, -1.5) lower probability of any ASD-specific service use in a month and $69 less (95% CI = -112, -$26) in average monthly spending on ASD-specific services than would have been expected given concomitant pre-post age cap differences among individuals in the same states who were never eligible for mandate-covered services. In addition, age caps were associated with $99 (95% CI = -$168, -$30) lower average monthly spending on all health care services.

CONCLUSION: Insurance mandates that include age caps going into effect during adolescence reduce health service use and spending among individuals with ASD during a critical phase of the life course.

This study explored change in social-communicative symptoms in 140 individuals with childhood autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnoses. Trajectories of caregiver-reported social-communicative symptoms were examined for three groups (verbal, delayed speech, minimally verbal) from ages 2 to 19 years. Groups showed comparable levels of social-communicative impairment at 2 years and significant decreases in overall symptom levels across the 17-year period (P < .001). Across three subdomains, main effects of time and language (P < .001) reflected patterns of overall improvement, although children with more impaired language tended to have more caregiver-reported symptoms relative to verbal peers. A significant time-by-language interaction (P < .001) reflected that trajectories of socioemotional reciprocity symptoms differed according to patterns of language development. In contrast, improvements in the nonverbal communication domain were seen across language groups, whereas deficits in the development and maintenance of relationships improved for only verbal children. Verbal adults showed significant reductions in the prevalence of kseveral symptoms exhibited during childhood. Improvements suggest that symptoms indicative of ASD in young children may no longer be diagnostic markers in adolescents and adults. Relative stability of several items suggests that impaired facial expression may be a core ASD symptom that warrants more systematic study across the lifespan. Research investigating the manifestation of ASD in older individuals is needed to foster development of appropriate assessment tools and interventions. Differential relationships to developmental factors within the broader social-communication domain underscores a need to focus on more narrowly defined symptom constructs when exploring links between pathophysiology and observable phenotypes. Autism Research 2019, 12: 89-99. © 2018 International Society for Autism Research, Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

LAY SUMMARY: In a sample of 140 participants with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) followed from 2 to 19 years old, this study found that overall social-communicative symptoms improve across childhood and adolescence. However, timing and amount of change varied for different symptom categories and participants with different language abilities. Findings suggest that some older adolescents and adults with ASD may not exhibit the same difficulties observed in young children with ASD. More research is needed to better understand the strengths and needs of young adults with ASD.