BACKGROUND: Reciprocal social behavior (RSB) is a developmental prerequisite for social competency, and deficits in RSB constitute a core feature of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Although clinical screeners categorically ascertain risk of ASD in early childhood, rapid methods for quantitative measurement of RSB in toddlers are not yet established. Such measurements are critical for tracking developmental trajectories and incremental responses to intervention.
METHODS: We developed and validated a 20-min video-referenced rating scale, the video-referenced rating of reciprocal social behavior (vrRSB), for untrained caregivers to provide standardized ratings of quantitative variation in RSB. Parents of 252 toddler twins [Monozygotic (MZ) = 31 pairs, Dizygotic (DZ) = 95 pairs] ascertained through birth records, rated their twins' RSB at two time points, on average 6 months apart, and completed two developmental measures, the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) and the MacArthur Communicative Development Inventory Short Form (MCDI-s).
RESULTS: Scores on the vrRSB were fully continuously distributed, with excellent 6-month test-retest reliability ([intraclass correlation coefficient] ICC = 0.704, p < .000). MZ twins displayed markedly greater trait concordance than DZ twins, (MZ ICC = 0.863, p < .000, DZ ICC = 0.231, p < .012). VrRSB score distributions were highly distinct for children passing versus failing the M-CHAT (t = -8.588, df = 31, p < .000), incrementally improved from 18-24 months, and were inversely correlated with receptive and expressive vocabulary on the MCDI-s.
CONCLUSIONS: Like quantitative autistic trait ratings in school-aged children and adults, toddler scores on the vrRSB are continuously distributed and appear highly heritable. These ratings exhibited minimal measurement error, high inter-individual stability, and developmental progression in RSB as children matured from 18-24 months, supporting their potential utility for serially quantifying the severity of early autistic syndromes over time and in response to intervention. In addition, these findings inform the genetic-environmental structure of RSB in early typical development.
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