Specific medical conditions are associated with unique behavioral profiles in autism spectrum disorders

Ditza A. Zachor, Esther Ben-Itzchak

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24 Scopus citations


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a heterogeneous group of disorders which occurs with numerous medical conditions. In previous research, subtyping in ASD has been based mostly on cognitive ability and ASD symptom severity. The aim of the current study was to investigate whether specific medical conditions in ASD are associated with unique behavioral profiles. The medical conditions included in the study were macrocephaly, microcephaly, developmental regression, food selectivity, and sleep problems. The behavioral profile was composed of cognitive ability, adaptive skills, and autism severity, and was examined in each of the aforementioned medical conditions. The study population included 1224 participants, 1043 males and 181 females (M:F ratio = 5.8:1) with a mean age of 49.9 m (SD = 29.4) diagnosed with ASD using standardized tests. Groups with and without the specific medical conditions were compared on the behavioral measures. Developmental regression was present in 19% of the population and showed a more severe clinical presentation, with lower cognitive abilities, more severe ASD symptoms, and more impaired adaptive functioning. Microcephaly was observed in 6.3% of the population and was characterized by a lower cognitive ability and more impaired adaptive functioning in comparison to the normative head circumference (HC) group. Severe food selectivity was found in 9.8% and severe sleep problems in 5.1% of the ASD population. The food selectivity and sleep problem subgroups, both showed more severe autism symptoms only as described by the parents, but not per the professional assessment, and more impaired adaptive skills. Macrocephaly was observed in 7.9% of the ASD population and did not differ from the normative HC group in any of the examined behavioral measures. Based on these findings, two unique medical-behavioral subtypes in ASD that affect inherited traits of cognition and/or autism severity were suggested. The microcephaly phenotype occurred with more impaired cognition and the developmental regression phenotype with widespread, more severe impairments in cognition and autism severity. In contrast, severe food selectivity and sleep problems represent only comorbidities to ASD that affect functioning. Defining specific subgroups in ASD with a unique biological signature and specific behavioral phenotypes may help future genetic and neuroscience research.

Original languageEnglish
Article number410
JournalFrontiers in Neuroscience
Issue numberSEP
StatePublished - 22 Sep 2016


  • Autism severity
  • Autism spectrum disorders (ASD)
  • Cognition
  • Developmental regression
  • Food selectivity
  • Macrocephaly
  • Microcephaly
  • Sleep problems


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