Toddlers' Autistic Behavior May Predict Future Psychosis

The March issue of Schizophrenia Research contains the results of a study showing that certain autistic behaviors in toddlers can be accurate predictors of later psychotic events. The retrospective study was conducted by Cardiff University in Wales.

Using data mined from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, researchers isolated 6,439 children who had exhibited childhood autistic traits and who were later interviewed for any psychotic episode. The three traits they looked at were 1) speech problems, 2) social problems, and 3) ritualistic behavior.

At age 12, psychotic episodes had manifested in 744 children, or about 11.5 percent. Roughly 40 percent of these exhibited one or more autistic behaviors as toddlers. Social problems had no correlation with later psychosis, but language difficulties made a toddler 58 percent more likely to develop a psychotic disorder as an adolescent.

Of the three traits, ritualistic behavior was the strongest predictor of later psychotic events; these behaviors at age 3 marked a 74 percent increase in likelihood. When those behaviors were still present at 7 years old, it signified a nearly 300 percent increase in the probability of psychotic episodes by age 12. Taken in aggregate, each autistic characteristic increased a particular toddler's odds of a later psychotic diagnosis by 33 percent.

Importantly, the findings reflect only a correlation; more work is required to determine causation. Autistic behavior often leads to bullying and other social pressures, and it is still unknown whether later psychotic disorders arise from a response to that social pressure or from a neurological foundation that also predisposes a child to autistic behaviors, to which social dysfunction is—unfortunately—simply tangential.

Source: Cardiff University, Wales, U.K.

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