The cerebellum is one of the most consistent sites of abnormality in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and cerebellar damage is associated with an increased risk of ASD symptoms, suggesting that cerebellar dysfunction may play a crucial role in the etiology of ASD. The cerebellum forms multiple closed-loop circuits with cerebral cortical regions that underpin movement, language, and social processing. Through these circuits, cerebellar dysfunction could impact the core ASD symptoms of social and communication deficits and repetitive and stereotyped behaviors. The emerging topography of sensorimotor, cognitive, and affective subregions in the cerebellum provides a new framework for interpreting the significance of regional cerebellar findings in ASD and their relationship to broader cerebro-cerebellar circuits. Further, recent research supports the idea that the integrity of cerebro-cerebellar loops might be important for early cortical development; disruptions in specific cerebro-cerebellar loops in ASD might impede the specialization of cortical regions involved in motor control, language, and social interaction, leading to impairments in these domains. Consistent with this concept, structural, and functional differences in sensorimotor regions of the cerebellum and sensorimotor cerebro-cerebellar circuits are associated with deficits in motor control and increased repetitive and stereotyped behaviors in ASD. Further, communication and social impairments are associated with atypical activation and structure in cerebro-cerebellar loops underpinning language and social cognition. Finally, there is converging evidence from structural, functional, and connectivity neuroimaging studies that cerebellar right Crus I/II abnormalities are related to more severe ASD impairments in all domains. We propose that cerebellar abnormalities may disrupt optimization of both structure and function in specific cerebro-cerebellar circuits in ASD.
Keywords: autism spectrum disorder; cerebellum; cerebo-cerebellar circuits; diffusion tensor imaging; functional connectivity; neuroimaging; resting state MRI; voxel based morphometry.