Background: Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often exhibit deficits in cognitive control. Neuroimaging approaches have implicated disruptions to medio-frontal cortex (MFC) structure and function. However, prior work has not directly tested whether young children with ASD exhibit disruptions to task-related theta oscillations thought to arise from the MFC. Methods: Forty-three children with ASD and 24 age- and gender-matched typically developing (TD) peers performed a child-friendly Go/No-go task while 64-channel electroencephalography (EEG) was recorded at kindergarten-entry. Time-frequency approaches were employed to assess the magnitude of mediofrontal theta oscillations immediately following error (vs. correct) responses (early theta), as well as later emerging theta oscillations (late theta). We tested whether error-related mediofrontal theta oscillations differed as a function of diagnosis (ASD/typical) and timing (early/late theta). Additionally, links to social and academic outcomes were tested. Results: Overall, children showed increased theta power following error vs. correct responses. Compared to TD children, children with ASD exhibited a selective reduction in error-related mediofrontal theta power during the late theta time window. There were no significant group differences for early theta power. Moreover, reduced error-related theta power during the late, but not early, time window significantly predicted poorer academic and social skills. Conclusions: Kindergarteners with ASD demonstrated a selective reduction in error-related mediofrontal theta power during a relatively late time window, which is consistent with impairments in specific cognitive processes that recruit top-down control. Targeting these particular cognitive control processes via intervention prior to school-entry may promote more successful functional outcomes for children with ASD.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience