Autism (ASD) is vastly heterogeneous, particularly in early language development. While ASD language trajectories in the first years of life are highly unstable, by early childhood these trajectories stabilize and are predictive of longer-term outcome. Early neural substrates that predict/precede such outcomes are largely unknown, but could have considerable translational and clinical impact. Pre-diagnosis fMRI response to speech in ASD toddlers with relatively good language outcome was highly similar to non-ASD comparison groups and robustly recruited language-sensitive superior temporal cortices. In contrast, language-sensitive superior temporal cortices were hypoactive in ASD toddlers with poor language outcome. Brain-behavioral relationships were atypically reversed in ASD, and a multimodal combination of pre-diagnostic clinical behavioral measures and speech-related fMRI response showed the most promise as an ASD prognosis classifier. Thus, before ASD diagnoses and outcome become clinically clear, distinct functional neuroimaging phenotypes are already present that can shed insight on an ASD toddler’s later outcome.
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