Background: Autism spectrum disorder (autism) is a complex neurodevelopmental condition with pronounced behavioral, cognitive, and neural heterogeneities across individuals. Here, our goal was to characterize heterogeneity in autism by identifying patterns of neural diversity as reflected in BOLD fMRI in the way individuals with autism engage with a varied array of cognitive tasks. Methods: All analyses were based on the EU-AIMS/AIMS-2-TRIALS multisite Longitudinal European Autism Project (LEAP) with participants with autism (n = 282) and typically developing (TD) controls (n = 221) between 6 and 30 years of age. We employed a novel task potency approach which combines the unique aspects of both resting state fMRI and task-fMRI to quantify task-induced variations in the functional connectome. Normative modelling was used to map atypicality of features on an individual basis with respect to their distribution in neurotypical control participants. We applied robust out-of-sample canonical correlation analysis (CCA) to relate connectome data to behavioral data. Results: Deviation from the normative ranges of global functional connectivity was greater for individuals with autism compared to TD in each fMRI task paradigm (all tasks p < 0.001). The similarity across individuals of the deviation pattern was significantly increased in autistic relative to TD individuals (p < 0.002). The CCA identified significant and robust brain-behavior covariation between functional connectivity atypicality and autism-related behavioral features. Conclusions: Individuals with autism engage with tasks in a globally atypical way, but the particular spatial pattern of this atypicality is nevertheless similar across tasks. Atypicalities in the tasks originate mostly from prefrontal cortex and default mode network regions, but also speech and auditory networks. We show how sophisticated modeling methods such as task potency and normative modeling can be used toward unravelling complex heterogeneous conditions like autism.
- Canonical correlation analysis
- Functional connectivity
- Normative modeling