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Trajectories in Symptoms of Autism and Cognitive Ability in Autism From Childhood to Adult Life: Findings From a Longitudinal Epidemiological Cohort

Simonoff E, Kent R, Stringer D, Lord C, Briskman J, Lukito S, Pickles A, Charman T, Baird G (2020) Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry  Dec;59(12):1342-1352 doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2019.11.020. Epub 2019 Dec 19. 

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Objective: For the first time, we use a longitudinal population-based autism cohort to chart the trajectories of cognition and autism symptoms from childhood to early adulthood and identify features that predict the level of function and change with development.

Method: Latent growth curve models were fitted to data from the Special Needs and Autism Project cohort at three time points: 12, 16, and 23 years. Outcome measures were IQ and parent-reported Social Responsiveness Scale autism symptoms. Of the 158 participants with an autism spectrum disorder at 12 years, 126 (80%) were reassessed at 23 years. Child, family, and contextual characteristics obtained at 12 years predicted intercept and slope of the trajectories.

Results: Both trajectories showed considerable variability. IQ increased significantly by a mean of 7.48 points from 12 to 23 years, whereas autism symptoms remained unchanged. In multivariate analysis, full-scale IQ was predicted by initial language level and school type (mainstream/specialist). Participants with a history of early language regression showed significantly greater IQ gains. Autism symptoms were predicted by Social Communication Questionnaire scores (lifetime version) and emotional and behavioral problems. Participants attending mainstream schools showed significantly fewer autism disorder symptoms at 23 years than those in specialist settings; this finding was robust to propensity score analysis for confounding.

Conclusion: Our findings suggest continued cognitive increments for many people with autism across the adolescent period, but a lack of improvement in autism symptoms. Our finding of school influences on autism symptoms requires replication in other cohorts and settings before drawing any implications for mechanisms or policy.


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