Developmental trajectories of autistic social traits in the general population

Pender, R., Fearon, P., St Pourcain, B., Heron, J., & Mandy, W. (2023). Developmental trajectories of autistic social traits in the general population. Psychological Medicine, 53(3), 814-822. doi:10.1017/S0033291721002166.

Autistic people show diverse trajectories of autistic traits over time, a phenomenon labelled ‘chronogeneity’. For example, some show a decrease in symptoms, whilst others experience an intensification of difficulties. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a dimensional condition, representing one end of a trait continuum that extends throughout the population. To date, no studies have investigated chronogeneity across the full range of autistic traits. We investigated the nature and clinical significance of autism trait chronogeneity in a large, general population sample.

Autistic social/communication traits (ASTs) were measured in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children using the Social and Communication Disorders Checklist (SCDC) at ages 7, 10, 13 and 16 (N = 9744). We used Growth Mixture Modelling (GMM) to identify groups defined by their AST trajectories. Measures of ASD diagnosis, sex, IQ and mental health (internalising and externalising) were used to investigate external validity of the derived trajectory groups.

The selected GMM model identified four AST trajectory groups: (i) Persistent High (2.3% of sample), (ii) Persistent Low (83.5%), (iii) Increasing (7.3%) and (iv) Decreasing (6.9%) trajectories. The Increasing group, in which females were a slight majority (53.2%), showed dramatic increases in SCDC scores during adolescence, accompanied by escalating internalising and externalising difficulties. Two-thirds (63.6%) of the Decreasing group were male.

Clinicians should note that for some young people autism-trait-like social difficulties first emerge during adolescence accompanied by problems with mood, anxiety, conduct and attention. A converse, majority-male group shows decreasing social difficulties during adolescence.
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