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Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have increased susceptibility to anxiety disorders. Variation in a common ASD symptom, insistence on sameness behaviour, may predict future anxiety symptoms.
To describe the joint heterogeneous longitudinal trajectories of insistence on sameness and anxiety in children with ASD and to characterise subgroups at higher risk for anxiety.
In a longitudinal ASD cohort (n = 421), insistence on sameness behaviour was measured using the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised at approximately ages 3, 6 and 11 years. Anxiety was quantified at 8 time points between ages 3 and 11 years using the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) (parent report). Clusters of participants following similar trajectories were identified using group-based and joint trajectory modelling.
Three insistence on sameness trajectories were identified: (a) ‘low-stable’ (41.7% of participants), (b) ‘moderate-increasing’ (52.0%) and (c) ‘high-peaking’ (i.e. increasing then stabilising/decreasing behaviour) (6.3%). Four anxiety trajectories were identified: (a) ‘low-increasing’ (51.0%), (b) ‘moderate-decreasing’ (16.2%), (c) ‘moderate-increasing’ (19.6%) and (d) ‘high-stable’ (13.1%). Of those assigned to the ‘high-peaking’ insistence on sameness trajectory, 95% jointly followed an anxiety trajectory that surpassed the threshold for clinical concern (T-score >65) by middle childhood (anxiety trajectories 3 or 4). Insistence on sameness and anxiety trajectories were similar in severity and direction for 64% of the sample; for 36%, incongruous patterns were seen (e.g. decreasing anxiety and increasing insistence on sameness).
The concurrent assessment of insistence on sameness behaviour and anxiety in ASD may help in understanding current symptom profiles and anticipating future trajectories. High preschool insistence on sameness in particular may be associated with elevated current or future anxiety symptoms.
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