Children with ASD establish joint attention during free-flowing toy play without face looks

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.

Competitive interactions have a vital role in the ecology of most animal species1-3 and powerfully influence the behaviour of groups4,5. To succeed, individuals must exert effort based on not only the resources available but also the social rank and behaviour of other group members2,6,7. The single-cellular mechanisms that precisely drive competitive interactions or the behaviour of social groups, however, remain poorly understood. Here we developed a naturalistic group paradigm in which large cohorts of mice competitively foraged for food as we wirelessly tracked neuronal activities across thousands of unique interactions. By following the collective behaviour of the groups, we found neurons in the anterior cingulate that adaptively represented the social rank of the animals in relation to others. Although social rank was closely behaviourally linked to success, these cells disambiguated the relative rank of the mice from their competitive behaviour, and incorporated information about the resources available, the environment, and past success of the mice to influence their decisions. Using multiclass models, we show how these neurons tracked other individuals within the group and accurately predicted upcoming success. Using neuromodulation techniques, we also show how the neurons conditionally influenced competitive effort-increasing the effort of the animals only when they were more dominant to their groupmates and decreasing it when they were subordinate-effects that were not observed in other frontal lobe areas. Together, these findings reveal cingulate neurons that serve to adaptively drive competitive interactions and a putative process that could intermediate the social and economic behaviour of groups.

Autistic individuals are at an increased risk for both sleep disturbances and depression. While studies in the general population and in autistic adults have drawn general links between sleep disturbances and mental health, few studies have examined the extent to which specific sleep problems may be implicated in the extremely high rates of depression among autistic adults. This study aimed to describe the patterns of sleep disturbances in autistic young adults, and their associations with depressive symptoms while controlling for relevant demographic factors. A sample of 304 legally independent adults (age 18-35 years old) with a childhood diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder self-reported on their average sleep behaviors during the past week and depressive symptoms on the Beck Depressive Inventory-II. A significant proportion (86.01%) of autistic young adults experienced at least one of the primary sleep disturbances of interest, including short total sleep time (39.59%), poor sleep efficiency (60.07%), and delayed sleep phase (36.18%). Additionally, lower sleep efficiency and delayed sleep phase were both associated with higher depressive symptoms. The associations between sleep and depressive symptoms identified in our study suggest that sleep treatments may hold potential for ameliorating depressive symptoms in autistic adults who also experience sleep problems. Further research using daily sleep diaries and objective measures of sleep behaviors, as well as longitudinal studies, are needed to understand how changes in sleep may relate to changes in depressive symptoms in autistic adults.

Keywords: delayed phase; depression; sleep; sleep efficiency; young adults.

Group social skills interventions (GSSIs) are among the most commonly used treatments for improving social competence in youth with ASD, however, results remain variable. The current study examined predictors of treatment response to an empirically-supported GSSI for youth with ASD delivered in the community (Ntotal=75). Participants completed a computer-based emotion recognition task and their parents completed measures of broad psychopathology, ASD symptomatology, and social skills. We utilized generalized estimating equations in an ANCOVA-of-change framework to account for nesting. Results indicate differential improvements in emotion recognition by sex as well as ADHD-specific improvements in adaptive functioning. Youth with both co-occurring anxiety and ADHD experienced iatrogenic effects, suggesting that SDARI may be most effective for youth with ASD without multiple co-occurring issues. Findings provide important directions for addressing variability in treatment outcomes for youth with ASD.

Keywords: ASD; Community; GSSI; Intervention; Social Skills; Treatment predictors.

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.