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Keywords:

  • Autistic disorder;
  • pervasive developmental disorder;
  • family factors;
  • siblings;
  • structural equation modeling

Background:  Difficulties in communication and reciprocal social behavior are core features of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and are often present, to varying degrees, in other family members. This prospective longitudinal infant sibling study examines whether social-communicative features of family members may inform which infants are at increased risk for ASD and other developmental concerns.

Method:  Two hundred and seventeen families participated in this study. Infant siblings were recruited from families with at least one older child diagnosed with an ASD (= 135) or at least one typically developing older child (= 82). Families completed the Social Responsiveness Scale to assess social and communication features of the broader autism phenotype (BAP), sometimes called quantitative autistic traits (QAT). Family affectedness was assessed in two ways: categorically, based on number of affected older siblings (i.e., typical, simplex, multiplex risk groups) and dimensionally, by assessing varying degrees of QAT in all family members. Infant siblings were assessed at 36 months of age and completed the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule and the Mullen Scales of Early Learning.

Results:  In structural equation models, comparisons between multiplex, simplex and typical groups revealed the highest rates of QAT in the multiplex group followed by the simplex and typical groups. Infant sibling outcomes were predicted by gender, family risk group, proband QAT, and additional sibling QAT.

Conclusions:  Replicating previous cross-sectional and family history findings, the present study found elevated social and communication features of the BAP in siblings and fathers of ASD families, but not in mothers. While social and communication features of the BAP in mothers, fathers, and undiagnosed siblings did not predict infant sibling outcomes, having more than one affected older sibling did. Infant siblings from multiplex families were at significantly higher risk for ASD than infant siblings from simplex families in this sample.