Behavioral and physiological differences during an emotion-evoking task in children at increased likelihood for autism spectrum disorder

Literature examining emotional regulation in infants with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has focused on parent report. We examined behavioral and physiological responses during an emotion-evoking task designed to elicit emotional states in infants. Infants at an increased likelihood for ASD (IL; have an older sibling with ASD; 96 not classified; 29 classified with ASD at age two) and low likelihood (LL; no family history of ASD; n = 61) completed the task at 6, 12, and 18 months. The main findings were (1) the IL-ASD group displayed higher levels of negative affect during toy removal and negative tasks compared to the IL non-ASD and LL groups, respectively, (2) the IL-ASD group spent more time looking at the baseline task compared to the other two groups, and (3) the IL-ASD group showed a greater increase in heart rate from baseline during the toy removal and negative tasks compared to the LL group. These results suggest that IL children who are classified as ASD at 24 months show differences in affect, gaze, and heart rate during an emotion-evoking task, with potential implications for understanding mechanisms related to emerging ASD.

Keywords: ASD; affect; autism; baby sibling; gaze; heart rate; physiology.

Background: Fragile X syndrome (FXS) is the most prevalent form of inherited intellectual disability and is commonly associated with autism. Previous studies have linked the structural and functional alterations in FXS with impaired sensory processing and sensory hypersensitivity, which may hinder the early development of cognitive functions such as language comprehension. In this study, we compared the P1 response of the auditory evoked potential and its habituation to repeated auditory stimuli in male children (2-7 years old) with and without FXS, and examined their association with clinical measures in these two groups.

Methods: We collected high-density electroencephalography (EEG) data in an auditory oddball paradigm from 12 male children with FXS and 11 age- and sex-matched typically developing (TD) children. After standardized EEG pre-processing, we conducted a spatial principal component (PC) analysis and identified two major PCs-a frontal PC and a temporal PC. Within each PC, we compared the P1 amplitude and inter-trial phase coherence (ITPC) between the two groups, and performed a series of linear regression analysis to study the association between these EEG measures and several clinical measures, including assessment scores for language abilities, non-verbal skills, and sensory hypersensitivity.

Results: At the temporal PC, both early and late standard stimuli evoked a larger P1 response in FXS compared to TD participants. For temporal ITPC, the TD group showed greater habituation than the FXS group. However, neither group showed significant habituation of the frontal or temporal P1 response. Despite lack of habituation, exploratory analysis of brain-behavior associations observed that within the FXS group, reduced frontal P1 response to late standard stimuli, and increased frontal P1 habituation were both associated with better language scores.

Conclusion: We identified P1 amplitude and ITPC in the temporal region as a contrasting EEG phenotype between the FXS and the TD groups. However, only frontal P1 response and habituation were associated with language measures. Larger longitudinal studies are required to determine whether these EEG measures could be used as biomarkers for language development in patients with FXS.

Keywords: EEG; ERP; Fragile X syndrome; autism; language; neural habituation; phase coherence.

On this week’s podcast, we conduct an interview with Michelle Hughes, PhD, epidemiologist with the CDC, who answers all of our questions about how many people have autism, how they are counted, what has changed since the last count and why the CDC are counting more kids than they were 10 years ago.

You can read more about her here:

Here is a link to the 8 year old counting study:

Here is the follow up to when they turned 16:

In this week’s podcast, we talk to Whitney Guthrie from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who spent the last 6 years conducting the gold-standard randomized control trial that demonstrates intervention for social communication skills at 18 months shows greater effects than intervention starting at 27 months. If you wanted evidence that earlier is better, here it is! Interventions and supports are important at any age, but the critical window of development between 18-27 months is particularly important for long term development.

What do anxiety, prevalence, ketamine, other neurodevelopmental disorders, siblings, genetics, brain imaging and the autistic researcher committee at INSAR all have in common? They were all topics at the last Day of Learning. You can hear a 20 minute summary of the talks on this week’s ASFpodcast.

The CDC released data from the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network (ADDM) on Thursday. In the past 2 years, the prevalence of autism has increased about 20%. Why? Are there more new cases or is diagnostic practices improving? For 20 years there has been fewer Black and Hispanic kids diagnosed. Is that still the case? Listen to this week’s #ASFpodcast to hear some early thoughts, the CDC will join us for an interview on April 20th:

Screening for autism is meant to cast a broad net to gather those who show enough features to be included for a full diagnostic evaluation. The most common of these tools is the MCHAT – the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers. An author of the MCHAT, Diana Robins, and a colleague, Andrea Wieckowski and others gathered over 50 studies (English and other languages) in different types of samples (high likelihood and low likelihood) to determine how the MCHAT was doing in terms of finding infants with autism as well as excluding those without autism. It also touched on how well primary care doctors were doing in administering this tool. If you want to see the MCHAT for yourself or take it for your child, there is a FREE website, click here: Listen to the podcast here.

To read the paper, click here:

The media has just called another biological marker a “diagnostic test”, when in this case, it was always intended to be an aid, not a test itself. It involves using baby hair strands to look a variation in metabolism of certain chemical elements across time. Remarkably, it showed similar results in autistic children in Japan, the US and Sweden. It’s not ready to be used as a diagnostic test, so what is it supposed to do? Listen to an interview with the inventor and researcher, Dr. Manish Arora from The Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai School here.

The full article (open access) can be found here:

Children’s ability to share attention with another person (i.e., achieve joint attention) is critical for learning about their environments in general1-3 and supporting language and object word learning in particular.1,4-14 While joint attention (JA) as it pertains to autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is often more narrowly operationalized as arising from eye gaze or explicit pointing cues alone,2,5,10,15-19 recent evidence demonstrates that JA in natural environments can be achieved more broadly through multiple other pathways beyond gaze and gestures.2,4,20-31 Here, we use dual head-mounted eye tracking to examine pathways into and characteristics of JA episodes during free-flowing parent-child toy play, comparing children with ASD to typically developing (TD) children. Moments of JA were defined objectively as both the child’s and parent’s gaze directed to the same object at the same time. Consistent with previous work in TD children,4,21,25,30-32 we found that both TD and ASD children rarely look at their parent’s face in this unstructured free play context. Nevertheless, both groups achieved similarly high rates of JA that far exceeded chance, suggesting the use of alternative pathways into JA. We characterize these alternate pathways, find they occur at similar levels across both groups, and achieve similar ends: namely, for both groups, targets of JA are named more frequently by parents in those moments than non-jointly attended objects. These findings broaden the conceptualization of JA abilities and impairment in ASD and raise questions regarding the mechanistic role of the face-gaze-mediated JA pathway in ASD.

Keywords: autism; development; dyadic interaction; eye tracking; joint attention; naturalistic play; social interaction.

Background: Canonical babbling-producing syllables with a mature consonant, full vowel, and smooth transition-is an important developmental milestone that typically occurs in the first year of life. Some studies indicate delayed or reduced canonical babbling in infants at high familial likelihood for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or who later receive an ASD diagnosis, but evidence is mixed. More refined characterization of babbling in the first year of life in infants with high likelihood for ASD is needed.

Methods: Vocalizations produced at 6 and 12 months by infants (n = 267) taking part in a longitudinal study were coded for canonical and non-canonical syllables. Infants were categorized as low familial likelihood (LL), high familial likelihood diagnosed with ASD at 24 months (HL-ASD) or not diagnosed (HL-Neg). Language delay was assessed based on 24-month expressive and receptive language scores. Canonical babble ratio (CBR) was calculated by dividing the number of canonical syllables by the number of total syllables. Generalized linear (mixed) models were used to assess the relationship between group membership and CBR, controlling for site, sex, and maternal education. Logistic regression was used to assess whether canonical babbling ratios at 6 and 12 months predict 24-month diagnostic outcome.

Results: No diagnostic group differences in CBR were detected at 6 months, but HL-ASD infants produced significantly lower CBR than both the HL-Neg and LL groups at 12 months. HL-Neg infants with language delay also showed reduced CBR at 12 months. Neither 6- nor 12-month CBR was significant predictors of 24-month diagnostic outcome (ASD versus no ASD) in logistic regression.

Limitations: Small numbers of vocalizations produced by infants at 6 months may limit the reliability of CBR estimates. It is not known if results generalize to infants who are not at high familial likelihood, or infants from more diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Conclusions: Lower canonical babbling ratios are apparent by the end of the first year of life in ASD regardless of later language delay, but are also observed for infants with later language delay without ASD. Canonical babbling may lack specificity as an early marker when used on its own.

Parent-focused interventions have been designed to provide training and support to caregivers who are essential in achieving positive outcomes for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). In 2020, significant crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic and continued racial tensions, profoundly impacted the livelihood of children with IDD and their families. Many ongoing efforts to address disparities among this population were halted temporarily and required further adaptations. Researchers adapted interventions and support to address the disparities impacting children with IDD and their families with limited guidance. We provide a descriptive case analysis of four parent-focused interventions that responded to the global crises to continue serving children with IDD and their families. The four distinct programs were based on applied behavior analysis and naturalistic, developmental-behavioral paradigms that were culturally adapted for families of young children with IDD from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. We present the qualitative reports on the challenges and benefits that arose with adapting the four parent-focused interventions for telehealth implementation. We focused specifically on adaptations made in recruitment and retention, instrumentation and measurement, research staff training, and intervention delivery. We synthesize our experience with challenges and solutions in adapting parent-focused interventions for racially/ethnically and socioeconomically diverse children with IDD and their families. We conclude with recommendations for researchers and practitioners on methods for adapting parent-focused interventions to address the significant health disparities that impact racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse children with IDD and their families.

Keywords: COVID-19; autism; intellectual disability; parent-focused interventions; practice; racial/ethnic diversity.