ABSTRACT. One paradox of autism is the co-occurrence of deficits in sensory and higher-order socio-cognitive processing. Here, we examined whether these phenotypical patterns may relate to an overarching system-level imbalance—specifically a disruption in macroscale hierarchy affecting integration and segregation of unimodal and transmodal networks. Combining connectome gradient and stepwise connectivity analysis based on task-free functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we demonstrated atypical connectivity transitions between sensory and higher-order default mode regions in a large cohort of individuals with autism relative to typically-developing controls. Further analyses indicated that reduced differentiation related to perturbed stepwise connectivity from sensory towards transmodal areas, as well as atypical long-range rich-club connectivity. Supervised pattern learning revealed that hierarchical features predicted deficits in social cognition and low-level behavioral symptoms, but not communication-related symptoms. Our findings provide new evidence for imbalances in network hierarchy in autism, which offers a parsimonious reference frame to consolidate its diverse features.
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