Middle‐childhood executive functioning mediates associations between early‐childhood autism symptoms and adolescent mental health, academic and functional outcomes in autistic children Academic Article uri icon

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  • Background

    Executive functioning (EF) varies in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and is associated with clinical symptoms, academic, and adaptive functioning. Here, we examined whether middle-childhood EF mediates associations between early-childhood autism symptoms and adolescent outcomes in children with ASD.


    The Pathways in ASD Cohort comprising children recruited at the time of ASD diagnosis (at 2-4 years-of-age) and followed prospectively across eight subsequent timepoints over ~10 years was used. A subset of Pathways participants (n = 250) with Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function (BRIEF)-Parent Form data from at least one timepoint when participants were school-aged was analyzed. A mediation framework was used to examine whether BRIEF-measured EF across age 7-10 years (middle-childhood) mediated associations between early-childhood autism symptoms (measured using the parent-report Social Responsiveness Scale across age 2-6 years) and clinical, academic, and functional outcomes, indexed at age >10-11.8 years (early-adolescence) using the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL)-Internalizing and Externalizing Scales, Academic Performance from the Teacher's Report Form, and Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales. Models were rerun substituting clinician-rated and teacher-rated measures, where possible.


    Mediation models indicated a significant indirect effect of middle-childhood EF on associations between early-childhood autism symptoms and externalizing behavior, academic performance, or adaptive functioning in early adolescence; kappa squared (κ2 ) effect sizes ranged from large to small. Model findings were stable across raters. Middle-childhood EF did not mediate associations between early-childhood autism symptoms and adolescent internalizing behavior.


    Among children with an ASD diagnosis, middle-childhood EF may be one pathway through which early-childhood autism symptoms influence a variety of outcomes in early-adolescence. An experimental study targeting middle-childhood EF to improve adolescent academic, emotional/behavioral, and adaptive functioning is needed to evaluate the clinical meaningfulness of these findings.

publication date

  • May 2022