Impairment in reciprocal social behavior (RSB), an essential component of early social competence, clinically defines autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, the behavioral and genetic architecture of RSB in toddlerhood, when ASD first emerges, has not been fully characterized. We analyzed data from a quantitative video-referenced rating of RSB (vrRSB) in two toddler samples: a community-based volunteer research registry (n = 1,563) and an ethnically diverse, longitudinal twin sample ascertained from two state birth registries (n = 714). Variation in RSB was continuously distributed, temporally stable, significantly associated with ASD risk at age 18 months, and only modestly explained by sociodemographic and medical factors (r2 = 9.4%). Five latent RSB factors were identified and corresponded to aspects of social communication or restricted repetitive behaviors, the two core ASD symptom domains. Quantitative genetic analyses indicated substantial heritability for all factors at age 24 months (h2 ≥.61). Genetic influences strongly overlapped across all factors, with a social motivation factor showing evidence of newly-emerging genetic influences between the ages of 18 and 24 months. RSB constitutes a heritable, trait-like competency whose factorial and genetic structure is generalized across diverse populations, demonstrating its role as an early, enduring dimension of inherited variation in human social behavior. Substantially overlapping RSB domains, measurable when core ASD features arise and consolidate, may serve as markers of specific pathways to autism and anchors to inform determinants of autism's heterogeneity.
- quantitative autistic traits
- reciprocal social behavior