Assessment in multisite randomized clinical trials of patients with autistic disorder: the Autism RUPP Network. Research Units on Pediatric Psychopharmacology

J Autism Dev Disord. 2000 Apr;30(2):99-111. doi: 10.1023/a:1005451304303.


Assessment of autistic disorder (autism) symptoms, primary and secondary, poses more challenging problems than ordinarily found in multisite randomized clinical trial (RCT) assessments. For example, subjects may be uncommunicative and extremely heterogeneous in problem presentation, and current pharmacological treatments are not likely to alter most core features of autism. The Autism Research Units on Pediatric Psychopharmacology (RUPP Autism Network) resolved some of these problems during the design of a risperidone RCT in children/adolescents. The inappropriateness of the usual anchors for a Clinical Global Impression of Severity (CGI-S) was resolved by defining uncomplicated autism without secondary symptoms as a CGI-S of 3, mildly ill. The communication problems, compromising use of the patient as an informant, were addressed by several strategies, including careful questioning of care providers, rating scales, laboratory tests, and physical exams. The broad subject heterogeneity requires outcome measures sensitive to individual change over a wide spectrum of treatment response and side effects. The problems of neuropsychologically testing nonverbal, lower functioning, sometimes noncompliant subjects requires careful instrument selection/adaptation and flexible administration techniques. The problems of assessing low-end IQs, neglected by most standardized test developers, was resolved by an algorithm of test hierarchy. Scarcity of other autism-adapted cognitive and neuropsychological tests and lack of standardization required development of a new, specially adapted battery. Reliability on the Autism Diagnostic Interview (currently the most valid diagnostic instrument) and other clinician instruments required extensive cross-site training (in-person, videotape, and teleconference sessions). Definition of a treatment responder required focus on individually relevant target symptoms, synthesis of possible modest improvements in many domains, and acceptance of attainable though imperfect goals. The assessment strategy developed is implemented in a RCT of risperidone (McDougle et al., 2000) for which the design and other methodological challenges are described elsewhere (Scahill et al., 2000). Some of these problems and solutions are partially shared with RCTs of other treatments and other disorders.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Multicenter Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antipsychotic Agents / adverse effects
  • Antipsychotic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Autistic Disorder / diagnosis
  • Autistic Disorder / drug therapy*
  • Child
  • Humans
  • Neuropsychological Tests / statistics & numerical data
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Risperidone / adverse effects
  • Risperidone / therapeutic use*
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Antipsychotic Agents
  • Risperidone