Examining the Intertwined Development of Prosocial Skills and ASD Symptoms in Adolescence
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and reduced prosocial behaviour are strongly intertwined. However, social interactions with peers may be increasingly practiced over the course of development and may instigate a reduction in ASD symptoms and vice versa. This may particularly hold during adolescence, a crucial phase for developing long term social relationships.
The current study set out to examine if, during adolescence, possible improvements in prosocial behaviors and ASD symptoms may benefit one another over time.
Participants were 2,773 adolescents from the Tracking Adolescents’ Individual Lives Survey (TRAILS) cohorts. Measurements took place over three waves (mean ages: 11.1y, 13.4y, and 16.2y). Parent-reported ASD symptoms were measured using the Child Social Behavior Questionnaire (CSBQ). Prosocial skills were teacher-rated, representing real life prosocial behaviors towards peers in a classroom setting, an important developmental context in adolescence. Longitudinal associations between prosocial skills and ASD symptoms were examined using the random intercept cross-lagged panel model (RI-CLPM). In addition to estimating the stable, between-person associations, the dynamical effects between prosocial skills and ASD symptoms over time were estimated at the within-person level. We tested whether the model fitted equally well across gender (male, female), cohort (population, clinically referred), and diagnostic status (ASD cases versus non-cases). In addition, we reran the model separately for social and communication behaviors and for stereotypic interests and repetitive behaviors to test whether the association between prosocial skills in the classroom and ASD depended on type of ASD symptoms.
At the between-person level, prosocial skills and ASD symptoms were substantially negatively correlated. At the within-person level, a small and unexpected positive cross-lagged effect from wave 1 ASD symptoms on wave 2 prosocial skills was observed, see Figure 1. For prosocial skills, no associations were found at the within-person level. Fixing across gender, cohort and for ASD versus non-ASD did not significantly impair model fit. The parameter estimates for social and communication symptoms were highly similar to the parameter estimates of the full model. The cross-lagged effect from wave 1 stereotypic and repetitive behaviors to wave 2 prosocial skills was not significant.
We added to the existing literature by showing that, in addition to replicating the already firmly established between-person association between low prosocial skills and ASD, we found no evidence that improvements in ASD symptoms and in prosocial skills over time during adolescence do not appear to influence each other for the better.