The emergence of autism spectrum disorder: insights gained from studies of brain and behaviour in high-risk infants

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Purpose of review

We review studies of infants at risk for autism spectrum disorder (ASD), proposing that the earliest manifestations of disrupted brain development can shed light on prebehavioural markers of risk and mechanisms underlying the heterogeneity of ASD.

Recent findings

Prospective, longitudinal studies of infants at risk for ASD have revealed that behavioural signs of ASD are generally not observed until the second year of life. The developmental signs within the first year are often subtle and rooted in processes outside the core diagnostic domains of ASD, such as motor and visual perceptual function. However, studies examining early brain development and function have identified a myriad of atypicalities within the first year that are associated with risk for ASD.


Longitudinal studies of high-risk infants provide a unique opportunity to identify and quantify the sources of the atypical development and developmental heterogeneity of ASD. Integration of assays of behaviour and brain in the first year of life, expansion of the definition of high risk, and coordinated efforts in multisite investigations to adequately power integrative studies will lead to new insights into mechanisms of atypical development and, ultimately, the ideal timing and target for interventions that aim to attenuate delays or impairments.

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