From Toddlerhood to Adolescence, Trajectories and Predictors of Outcome: Long‐Term Follow‐Up Study in Autism Spectrum Disorder

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This study is one of a very few prospective long‐term studies in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The study compared outcome trajectories in three adolescent groups (T2): “best outcome” (BO, n = 11) did not meet cut‐off points for ASD and IQ scores ≥85; high functioning (HF‐ASD, n = 14); and lower functioning (LF‐ASD, n = 43). Additionally, the study searched for characteristics at toddlerhood (T1) that may predict belonging to the above groups. The study included 68 adolescents (63 males) diagnosed with ASD at toddlerhood (mean age: 13:10 years), mean follow‐up time was 11:7 years. Participants underwent comprehensive assessments at T1 and T2. Different trajectories were found for the three defined groups. The BO group improved significantly in cognitive ability, autism severity, and adaptive skills in comparison to no improvement for the LF‐ASD group or partial progress for the HF‐ASD group. At toddlerhood, better cognition and less severe autism social affect symptoms were generally associated with a better outcome. Early social behaviors including better “pointing,” “facial expression directed to others,” “showing,” and “response to joint attention” were associated with membership in the BO group. In addition, the BO group had the lowest prevalence of significant T2 inattention and anxiety symptoms. No significant differences between the three outcome groups were noted in the birth and prevalence of medical problems. Higher cognitive ability and better T1 showing and pointing behaviors predicted better outcome. The study points to the change in autism severity over time and to the prognostic value of early developmental abilities, social engagement behaviors, and the existence of comorbidities.

Lay Summary

This long‐term study compared characteristics of toddlers diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in three outcome groups in adolescence: best outcome (BO‐average IQ/not meeting criteria for ASD), high‐functioning ASD, and low‐functioning ASD (LF‐ASD). At toddlerhood, the BO group displayed less severe autism symptoms, mostly in sharing interests, compared to the LF‐ASD group. The BO group had fewer inattention and anxiety symptoms than the two ASD groups. Additionally, early cognitive level and social engagement behaviors predicted outcome in ASD.

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