Early diagnosis of autism identifies high variation in developmental trajectories of preschoolers

January 30, 2015

A paper published online in JAMA Psychiatry today highlights the need to tailor therapies to autistic children's individual strengths and challenges. 

NeuroDevNet investigators participating in the Pathways in Autism Spectrum Disorders study led the publication which followed  symptoms and developmental abilities in 421 preschool children from the time of diagnosis, between ages 2 and 4, until age 6.

During this period of intensive developmental change, about one-fifth of the children made significant gains in adaptive functioning - the ability to engage in activities of daily lie. Gains were greater among the children diagnosed earliest. At the same time, core autism symptoms such as repetitive behaviors and social/communication challenges remained severe in many of the children in the group – regardless of when they were diagnosed.

A smaller subset of the children in the study – around 10 percent – showed significantly reduced autism symptoms that that did not necessarily go hand-in-hand with improved daily functioning.

NeuroDevNet-affiliated authors on the paper include lead author Dr. Peter Szatmari, and Drs. Stelios Georgiades, Susan Bryson, Eric Fombonne, Pat Mirenda, Wendy Roberts, Isabel M. Smith, Tracy Vaillancourt, Lonnie Zwaigenbaum, and Mayada Elsabbagh. 

In the study, the authors conclude: “It is imperative that a flexible suite of interventions that target both autistic symptom severity and adaptive functioning be implemented and tailored to each child's strengths and difficulties."

Interviewed the day of the release, Dr. Zwaigenbaum acknowledged that close approximation between needs and services has yet to be achieved. "The diversity argues for customized therapies," he said, "but this is still something we are working towards in the intervention field."

Prepared with information from Autism Speaks' "Study Finds Preschoolers with Autism Vary Greatly in Areas of Progress"