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Temperamental markers in toddlers with autism spectrum disorder

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Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry

Published online on


Background Although temperament has been recognized as an important contributor to childhood psychopathology, its role in emergent autism spectrum phenotypes is not well understood. This study examined whether toddlers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) display temperamental vulnerabilities compared to toddlers with other developmental challenges, whether these characteristics are distinct from core autism symptoms, if they are stable over time, and if they contribute to social outcomes in preschool. Methods Parents of 165 toddlers with ASD, 58 nonverbal ability‐ and chronological age‐ (CA) matched developmentally delayed (DD) toddlers, and 92 CA‐matched typically developing (TD) toddlers completed the Toddler Behavior Assessment Questionnaire‐Supplemental (TBAQ‐S) at 26 months (SD = 6; Time 1). TBAQ‐S data were also available for a subset of toddlers with ASD (n = 126) at 43 months (SD = 9; Time 2). Results Compared to the DD and TD groups, toddlers with ASD exhibited vulnerabilities within the Effortful Control domain as well as the Surgency domain. They also displayed greater Negative Emotionality compared to TD peers. In the ASD group, temperamental characteristics were not concurrently related to autism severity or developmental level and individual differences were highly stable over time. Changes in Perceptual Sensitivity, Inhibitory Control, and Low‐Intensity Pleasure from age 2 to 3.5 uniquely predicted autism symptom severity and adaptive social skill level at Time 2. Conclusions Temperamental vulnerabilities in toddlers with ASD are stable over time and involve attentional and behavioral control as well as affective reactivity. They contribute uniquely to social outcomes in preschool and are likely to signal risk for developing later maladaptive attentional, affective, and behavioral symptoms. Considering biologically based dimensions may shed light on noncore facets of the early ASD phenotype that are potentially relevant to the emergence of comorbid conditions later in childhood.