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Structural hierarchy of autism spectrum disorder symptoms: an integrative framework

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Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry

Published online on


Background In an attempt to resolve questions regarding the symptom classification of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), previous research generally aimed to demonstrate superiority of one model over another. Rather than adjudicating which model may be optimal, we propose an alternative approach that integrates competing models using Goldberg's bass‐ackwards method, providing a comprehensive understanding of the underlying symptom structure of ASD. Methods The study sample comprised 3,825 individuals, consecutive referrals to a university hospital developmental disabilities specialty clinic or a child psychiatry outpatient clinic. This study analyzed DSM‐IV‐referenced ASD symptom statements from parent and teacher versions of the Child and Adolescent Symptom Inventory‐4R. A series of exploratory structural equation models was conducted in order to produce interpretable latent factors that account for multivariate covariance. Results Results indicated that ASD symptoms were structured into an interpretable hierarchy across multiple informants. This hierarchy includes five levels; key features of ASD bifurcate into different constructs with increasing specificity. Conclusions This is the first study to examine an underlying structural hierarchy of ASD symptomatology using the bass‐ackwards method. This hierarchy demonstrates how core features of ASD relate at differing levels of resolution, providing a model for conceptualizing ASD heterogeneity and a structure for integrating divergent theories of cognitive processes and behavioral features that define the disorder. These findings suggest that a more coherent and complete understanding of the structure of ASD symptoms may be reflected in a metastructure rather than at one level of resolution.