Reduced executive functions (EF) are commonly associated with developmental conditions (e.g., autism spectrum disorder, ASD; attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, ADHD), although EF seems to be typical in children with callous unemotional (CU) traits. Regulatory function (RF) is a proposed infant precursor that maps on onto factors driving later EF. Here, we first test whether RF is specifically and negatively associated with ASD and ADHD traits, but not CU traits. Second, we test whether RF can act as a protective factor, by moderating the association between infant markers and subsequent ASD and ADHD traits.
Participants were 79 infants at high (N = 42) and low (N = 37) familial risk for ASD. Data come from the 14-month infant visit (Autism Observational Scale for Infants; AOSI; activity level and RF from the Infant Behavior Questionnaire; IBQ) and the 7-year visit (ASD traits: Social Responsiveness Scale, SRS; ADHD traits: Conners 3, CU traits: Inventory of Callous Unemotional Traits).
Infant RF was negatively associated with later traits of ASD (B = - 0.5, p = 0.01) and ADHD inattention (B = - 0.24, p = 0.02) but not hyperactivity (B = - 0.25, p = 0.10) or CU traits (B = 0.02, p = 0.86). RF moderated the association between infant AOSI score and ASD traits, with a significant effect in those with low RF (B = 0.10, p = 0.006), not high RF (B = 0.01, p = 0.78). Similarly, for ADHD, infant activity level was associated with later ADHD inattention in those with low (B = 0.17, p = 0.04) but not high RF (B = 0.07, p = 0.48). For ADHD hyperactivity symptoms, activity level was predictive at both high and low levels of RF.
Strong RF may allow children to compensate for other atypicalities, thus attenuating the association between infant markers and later disorder traits. Whilst infant RF was associated with both ASD and ADHD inattention traits, there was no association with ADHD hyperactivity or CU traits. This suggests that any protective effect may not be universal and emphasises the need for a better understanding of the underlying moderating mechanisms.