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COVID-19 lockdowns increased the risk of mental health problems, especially for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, despite its importance, little is known about the protective factors for ASD children during the lockdowns.
Based on the Shanghai Autism Early Developmental Cohort, 188 ASD children with two visits before and after the strict Omicron lockdown were included; 85 children were lockdown-free, while 52 and 51 children were under the longer and the shorter durations of strict lockdown, respectively. We tested the association of the lockdown group with the clinical improvement and also the modulation effects of parent/family-related factors on this association by linear regression/mixed-effect models. Within the social brain structures, we examined the voxel-wise interaction between the grey matter volume and the identified modulation effects.
Compared with the lockdown-free group, the ASD children experienced the longer duration of strict lockdown had less clinical improvement (β = 0.49, 95% confidence interval (CI) [0.19–0.79], p = 0.001) and this difference was greatest for social cognition (2.62 [0.94–4.30], p = 0.002). We found that this association was modulated by parental agreeableness in a protective way (−0.11 [−0.17 to −0.05], p = 0.002). This protective effect was enhanced in the ASD children with larger grey matter volumes in the brain's mentalizing network, including the temporal pole, the medial superior frontal gyrus, and the superior temporal gyrus.
This longitudinal neuroimaging cohort study identified that the parental agreeableness interacting with the ASD children's social brain development reduced the negative impact on clinical symptoms during the strict lockdown.
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