Faculty of Social Sciences
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Podesta, Lysandra

A dynamic network analysis of general and individual, current and longitudinal autism symptoms and related social-emotional factors.

Young adulthood comes with developmental milestones that can be particularly challenging for individuals with many Autism Spectrum Disorder [ASD] traits, due to the burden that is placed on one’s social skills and emotion regulation. These obstacles affect the ability to participate in higher education and other societal settings. The general (traditional) consensus is that autism is a chronic developmental disorder with a biological basis, with symptoms developing early in one’s development. However, the traditional views of autism as a disability related to (among other things) weak central coherence, a lack of Theory of Mind, or problems regarding executive functioning are unable to explain all autism symptoms in all individuals. Furthermore, a few studies show that some children who had been diagnosed with ASD no longer meet the ASD criteria at a later age. The possibility of ‘growing out of’ ASD, and factors that might be related to this clinically relevant reduction of symptoms, has seldom been studied. Therefore, we argue that the focus might better be moved to a more individualized and encompassing view of factors that could influence the presence and severity of autism symptoms. Viewing autism symptoms from a Complex Systems approach entails that symptoms should be seen as possibly fluctuating in response to other factors in the system. Several researchers confirm the presence of a continuum of autistic traits in the general population, with ‘ASD’ being an extreme, clinically relevant ASD symptom presentation. Accordingly, the possibility of fluctuations in ASD symptoms is explored in the whole ASD symptom continuum (i.e., including young adults with and without ASD diagnosis). Moreover, we explore which social-emotional factors are associated with these changes. In order to investigate the associations between ASD symptoms and social-emotional factors, it is helpful to recognize that these can be conceptualized as a part of a large network of factors and relationships between factors that can all impact one another. This is the focus of Network Theory, which is the basis for our empirical studies. Based on longitudinally measured self-report data, the general and individual ASD symptom networks are constructed in order to find out: 1) which social-emotional factors are related to ASD symptoms most strongly, 2) if ‘ASD’ appears to be a closely-knit and stable network of connected symptoms, and 3) which social-emotional factors are related to ASD symptom fluctuations.

Prof. dr. A. Bosman, dr. M. Wijnants