Autism is a common neurodevelopmental condition characterized by substantial phenotypic heterogeneity, which hinders diagnosis, research, and intervention. A leading example can be found in marked imbalances in language and perceptual skills, where deficits in one domain often co-exist with normal or even superior performance in the other domain. The current work capitalized on multiple data analytics including data-driven subtyping and dimensional approaches to quantify cognitive imbalances in multi-site datasets of individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and neurotypical controls, and assessed structural and functional brain network substrates. Studying cognitive dimensions as well as multimodal neuroimaging signatures in 155 ASD and 151 neurotypical individuals, we observed robust evidence for a structure-function substrate of cognitive imbalances in ASD. Specifically, ASD presented with marked imbalances in cognitive profiles relative to neurotypical controls, characterized by verbal to non-verbal intelligence discrepancy. Different analytical approaches including subtyping and dimensional regression methods converged in showing that these imbalances were reflected in atypical cortical thickening and functional integration of language networks, alongside sensory and higher cognitive networks. Phenotypic findings could be replicated in an independent sample of 325 ASD and 569 neurotypical controls. Although verbal and non-verbal intelligence are currently considered as specifiers unrelated to the categorical diagnosis of autism, our results show that intelligence disparities are accentuated in ASD and relate to a consistent structure-function substrate affecting multiple brain networks. Our findings motivate the incorporation of cognitive imbalances in future autism research, which may help to parse the phenotypic heterogeneity of autism and potentially inform intervention-oriented subtyping.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience