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Behavioral and Social Activation in Autism and Associations with Youth Depressive Symptoms from Youth and Caregiver Perspectives


Autistic youth are more likely to experience depression than their non-autistic peers, yet research on risk and protective factors to depression in this population is limited. Behavioral activation (i.e., prioritizing and engaging in meaningful activities), including social activities, is an important mechanism in the pathway to depression in non-autistic youth that is understudied in autism. Ratings of youth depressive symptoms and behavioral and social activation at one timepoint from 100 autistic youth without intellectual disability and 100 of their caregivers were analyzed. The study aims were to examine caregiver and youth ratings of youth internalizing symptoms and behavioral and social activation, inter-rater reliability on study variables, and associations between depressive symptoms and behavioral and social activation in autistic youth by rater. Results revealed significant differences in youth and caregiver ratings on all variables and inter-rater reliability ranged from poor to moderate. Across both raters, more severe anxiety symptoms and lower behavioral activation were associated with more severe depressive symptoms; social activation, specifically the number of friends youth have, was significant in caregiver ratings only. Findings can be leveraged to enhance risk stratification and intervention efforts for autistic youth experiencing depression.

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The study received core support from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (CTSA UL1TR000445) to utilize the REDCap system. Jessica M. Schwartzman is supported by the National Institute for Mental Health grant K23-MH131852.

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JMS contributed to the study conception and design. Material preparation and data collection were performed by HRB, and data analysis performed by JMS. The first draft of the manuscript was written by JMS and all authors commented on previous versions of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Jessica M. Schwartzman.

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The authors have no financial and/or non-financial conflict of interest to declare.

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All procedures performed in this study were approved by the Vanderbilt University Institutional Review Board and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments.

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Schwartzman, J.M., Bonner, H.R. Behavioral and Social Activation in Autism and Associations with Youth Depressive Symptoms from Youth and Caregiver Perspectives. J Autism Dev Disord (2023).

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