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Keywords:

  • ASD siblings;
  • mother–child relations;
  • high-risk infants;
  • parent sensitivity

Background:  Recent models of the early emergence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) propose that infant intrinsic risk susceptibilities in behaviour may be amplified by interaction within the early social environment into an increasingly atypical developmental trajectory. This study examines whether 6- and 12-month parent–infant interactions in at-risk siblings differ from those with low-risk and whether – in at-risk siblings – such interactions predict later 3-year classification of ASD or no ASD.

Method:  Within the British Autism Study of Infant Siblings (BASIS), 6-min videotaped episodes of parent–infant free play in infants at 6–10 months (45 at-risk siblings and 47 low-risk siblings) and 12–15 months (43 at-risk siblings and 48 low-risk siblings) in a laboratory setting were rated on the Manchester Assessment of Caregiver-Infant Interaction (MACI), blind to participant information. Standard tests were administered for concurrent behavioural signs of ASD features and developmental level. Systematic consensus diagnostic classification of ASD was made at 3 years for the at-risk siblings.

Results:  Parent nondirectiveness and sensitive responsiveness differed in relation to ASD/risk status (at-risk ASD, at-risk no-ASD and low-risk) at both 6 and 12 months. At 6 months, infant liveliness was lower in the at-risk groups; at 12 months, infant attentiveness to parent and positive affect were lower in the at-risk group later diagnosed with ASD. Dyadic mutuality and intensity of engagement showed a group effect at 12 months. Dyadic mutuality, infant positive affect and infant attentiveness to parent at 12 months (but not 6 months) predicted 3-year ASD outcome, whereas infant ASD-related behavioural atypicality did not.

Conclusions:  This is the first prospective evidence that early dyadic interaction between at-risk infants and their parents is associated with later diagnostic outcome in ASD. Possible explanations for these findings and their theoretical implications are considered.