Research implicates prenatal maternal stress (PNMS) as a risk factor for neurodevelopmental disorders; however few studies report PNMS effects on autism risk in offspring. We examined, prospectively, the degree to which objective and subjective elements of PNMS explained variance in autism-like traits among offspring, and tested moderating effects of sex and PNMS timing in utero. Subjects were 89 (46F/43M) children who were in utero during the 1998 Quebec Ice Storm. Soon after the storm, mothers completed questionnaires on objective exposure and subjective distress, and completed the Autism Spectrum Screening Questionnaire (ASSQ) for their children at age 6½. ASSQ scores were higher among boys than girls. Greater objective and subjective PNMS predicted higher ASSQ independent of potential confounds. An objective-by-subjective interaction suggested that when subjective PNMS was high, objective PNMS had little effect; whereas when subjective PNMS was low, objective PNMS strongly affected ASSQ scores. A timing-by-objective stress interaction suggested objective stress significantly affected ASSQ in first-trimester exposed children, though less so with later exposure. The final regression explained 43% of variance in ASSQ scores; the main effect of sex and the sex-by-PNMS interactions were not significant. Findings may help elucidate neurodevelopmental origins of non-clinical autism-like traits from a dimensional perspective.
Keywords: Autism spectrum disorder; Developmental psychopathology; Dimensional model; Natural disaster; Pregnancy; Prenatal maternal stress; Sex differences.
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