Journal Article
Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
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Trajectory of depressive symptoms over adolescence in autistic and neurotypical youth.

Molecular Autism 2024 May 3
BACKGROUND: Adolescence coincides with a dramatic rise in the onset of psychiatric conditions including depression. Depression symptoms may be particularly prevalent and impairing for youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). While prior research suggests adolescence is associated with worsening depression symptoms for typically developing (TD) and autistic youth, it is unclear if they follow a similar course.

METHOD: The study examined the trajectory of depressive symptoms in autistic and neurotypical youth over a 4-year longitudinal study using linear and logistic mixed effects models. In youth with clinically relevant depressive scores (t-score > 65), moderating factors (i.e., diagnosis, age, puberty, sex) were explored. During Year 1, the sample included 244 youth 10-to-13 years: 140 in the ASD group (36 females) and 104 in the TD group (46 females).

RESULTS: Autistic youth had elevated depression scores compared to TD peers (p < 0.001) and females were higher than males in both groups (p = 0.001). There was significant diagnosis by age (p < 0.001) and diagnosis by pubertal stage (p < 0.05) interactions. In the ASD group, elevated depressive scores presented in early adolescence and decreased during middle adolescence and puberty, whereas the TD group showed the opposite trend with an increase in depression symptoms with advancing development.

LIMITATIONS: Limitations include an unequal sex distribution (fewer females), non-representative autistic sample (e.g., cognition and race/ethnicity), and potential confound of the COVID-19 pandemic.

CONCLUSIONS: Autistic youth present with higher rates of depressive symptoms early in development; yet, approaching middle adolescence and puberty, the symptom trajectory in the autistic youth declines coinciding with an increase in the TD youth. While group trajectories are divergent, they lead to similar levels of depression in late adolescence with higher symptoms in females. Findings suggest a period of quiescence in depressive symptomology influenced by biopsychosocial factors impacting affective profiles.

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