Some individuals can flexibly adapt to life’s changing demands while others, in particular those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), find it challenging. The origin of early individual differences in cognitive abilities, the putative tools with which to navigate novel information in life, including in infants later diagnosed with ASD remains unexplored. Moreover, the role of intelligence quotient (IQ) vis-à-vis core features of autism remains debated. We systematically investigate the contribution of early IQ in future autism outcomes in an extremely large, population-based study of 8000 newborns, infants, and toddlers from the US between 2 and 68 months with over 15,000 cross-sectional and longitudinal assessments, and for whom autism outcomes are ascertained or ruled out by about 2–4 years. This population is representative of subjects involved in the National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded research, mainly on atypical development, in the US. Analyses using predetermined age bins showed that IQ scores are consistently lower in ASD relative to typically developing (TD) children at all ages (p < 0.001), and IQ significantly correlates with social, non-social, and total Calibrated Severity Scores (CSS) on the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) (p<0.01). Lower IQ is associated with greater autistic impairments. Note, verbal IQ (VIQ) is no better than the full-scale IQ to predict ASD cases. These findings raise new, compelling questions about potential atypical brain circuitry affecting performance in both verbal and nonverbal abilities and preceding an ASD diagnosis. This study is the first to establish prospectively that low early IQ is a major feature of ASD in early childhood.
The role of IQ scores in autism remains debated. We systematically investigate the contribution of early IQ in an extremely large study of 8,000 children between 2 and 68 months with autism outcomes by about 2–4 years. We show that IQ scores are consistently lower in ASD relative to TD children. This study is the first to establish prospectively that low early IQ is a predictor for ASD diagnosis in early childhood.