Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) includes a range of mental health issues including Asperger’s syndrome, autism, and developmental problems not otherwise specified. All of these spectrum issues are evidenced by lack of communication and social skills at an early age. Some children also exhibit repetitive behaviors or decreased cognitive and motor skills. Regression of various capacities is not uncommon in children diagnosed with ASD and is often used as a marker by which parents can identify early signs of the illness. Most children with ASD are first diagnosed in their toddler years. But researchers are beginning to wonder if even earlier diagnoses are possible. If so, children could be placed in programs that address their communication and social needs at an earlier age. This could prevent the regression of skills in some children. Although there is an abundance of research on children with ASD, few of the studies conducted have focused on the trajectories of impairments in children diagnosed with ASD.
To address this gap, Catherine Lord at the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain and Department of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College at the New York Presbyterian Hospital recently led a study that evaluated 65 children, all approximately 18 months old. The children were all referred by parents concerned with signs of ASD. Lord also assessed 13 children who were part of other ongoing research programs. All of the children were clinically evaluated every other month for a year and a half by the same examiner. Every 6 months, a blind analysis was conducted.
The results revealed that many predictors of ASD, such as social deficits and repetitive actions, were evident as early as 18 months. The findings also demonstrated the importance of parent reports. The children who had been referred for concerns of ASD because they had a sibling with the disorder were much more likely to receive a positive diagnosis than those who had not been referred as a result of parental concern. Additionally, Lord also found that one-third of the children who had received a diagnosis of ASD at one point during their evaluation actually showed improvement in verbal, cognitive, and behavioral skills over the course of the study. She said, “This pattern highlights the need for continued assessment and monitoring, not only for children who do not progress but also for children who show marked improvements.” Lord believes that these findings emphasize the need for more frequent monitoring and assessment of children at risk for ASD.
Lord, C., Luyster, R., Guthrie, W., Pickles, A. (2012). Patterns of developmental trajectories in toddlers with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027214
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