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.

Multimodal exploration of objects during toy play is important for a child’s development and is suggested to be abnormal in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) due to either atypical attention or atypical action. However, little is known about how children with ASD coordinate their visual attention and manual actions during toy play. The current study aims to understand if and in what ways children with ASD generate exploratory behaviors to toys in natural, unconstrained contexts by utilizing head-mounted eye tracking to quantify moment-by-moment attention. We found no differences in how 24- to 48-mo children with and without ASD distribute their visual attention, generate manual action, or coordinate their visual and manual behaviors during toy play with a parent. Our findings suggest an intact ability and willingness of children with ASD to explore toys and suggest that context is important when studying child behavior.

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.

Objectives: Anecdotal reports suggest that elopement behavior in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) increases risk of injury or death and places a major burden on families. This study assessed parent-reported elopement occurrence and associated factors among children with ASDs.

Methods: Information on elopement frequency, associated characteristics, and consequences was collected via an online questionnaire. The study sample included 1218 children with ASD and 1076 of their siblings without ASD. The association among family sociodemographic and child clinical characteristics and time to first elopement was estimated by using a Cox proportional hazards model.

Results: Forty-nine percent (n = 598) of survey respondents reported their child with an ASD had attempted to elope at least once after age 4 years; 26% (n = 316) were missing long enough to cause concern. Of those who went missing, 24% were in danger of drowning and 65% were in danger of traffic injury. Elopement risk was associated with autism severity, increasing, on average, 9% for every 10-point increase in Social Responsiveness Scale T score (relative risk 1.09, 95% confidence interval: 1.02, 1.16). Unaffected siblings had significantly lower rates of elopement across all ages compared with children with ASD.

Conclusions: Nearly half of children with ASD were reported to engage in elopement behavior, with a substantial number at risk for bodily harm. These results highlight the urgent need to develop interventions to reduce the risk of elopement, to support families coping with this issue, and to train child care professionals, educators, and first responders who are often involved when elopements occur.

While much research has examined the development of facial recognition abilities, less is known about the ability of individuals with and without autism to categorize facial gender. The current study tested gender categorization abilities in high-functioning children (5-7 and 8-12 years), adolescents (13-17 years), and adults (18-53 years) with autism and matched controls. Naturalistic videos depicted faces that were either typical or less typical of each gender. Both groups improved in their performance across development. However, control children reached expertise that was similar to control adults by 8-12 years; whereas, adults with autism never reached this level of expertise, particularly with less typical gender faces. Results suggest that individuals with autism employ different face processing mechanisms than typically developing individuals.

Recent reports suggest certain behaviors among children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) may indicate underlying gastro-intestinal (GI) problems, and that the presence of these behaviors may help alert primary care providers to the need to evaluate a child with ASD for GI problems. The purpose of this population-based study of 487 children with ASD, including 35 (7.2%) with a medically documented history of GI problems, was to compare behavioral features of children with and without a history of GI problems. Unusual sleeping or eating habits and oppositional behavior were significantly associated with GI problems. These behaviors, however, were frequent in both children with and without GI problems, suggesting they may have limited utility in a screening capacity for GI problems.

Recent findings suggest impaired motor skill development during infancy in children later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). However, it remains unclear whether infants at high familial risk for ASD would benefit from early interventions targeting the motor domain. The current study investigated this issue by providing 3-month-old infants at high familial risk for ASD with training experiences aimed at facilitating independent reaching. A group of 17 high-risk (HR) infants received 2 weeks of scaffolded reaching experiences using “sticky mittens,” and was compared to 72 low-risk (LR) infants experiencing the same or alternative training procedures. Results indicate that HR infants – just like LR infants – show an increase in grasping activity following “sticky mittens” training. In contrast to LR infants, evidence that motor training encouraged a preference for faces in HR infants was inconclusive.

Keywords: autism spectrum disorders; grasping; infancy; motor development; sticky mittens.