Essential versus complex autism: definition of fundamental prognostic subtypes

Am J Med Genet A. 2005 Jun 1;135(2):171-80. doi: 10.1002/ajmg.a.30590.


Heterogeneity within the autism diagnosis obscures the genetic basis of the disorder and impedes our ability to develop effective treatments. We found that by using two readily available tests, autism can be divided into two subgroups, "essential autism" and "complex autism," with different outcomes and recurrence risks. Complex autism consists of individuals in whom there is evidence of some abnormality of early morphogenesis, manifested by either significant dysmorphology or microcephaly. The remainder have "essential autism." From 1995 to 2001, 260 individuals who met DSM-IV criteria for autistic disorder were examined. Five percent (13/260) were microcephalic and 16% (41/260) had significant physical anomalies. Individually, each trait predicted a poorer outcome. Together they define the "complex autism" subgroup, comprising 20% (46/233) of the total autism population. Individuals with complex autism have lower IQs (P=0.006), more seizures (P=0.0008), more abnormal EEGs (46% vs. 30%), more brain abnormalities by MRI (28% vs. 13%). Everyone with an identifiable syndrome was in the complex group. Essential autism defines the more heritable group with higher sib recurrence (4% vs. 0%), more relatives with autism (20% vs. 9%), and higher male to female ratio (6.5:1 vs. 3.2:1). Their outcome was better with higher IQs (P=0.02) and fewer seizures (P=0.0008). They were more apt to develop autism with a regressive onset (43% vs. 23%, P=0.02). Analysis of the features predictive of poor outcome (IQ<55, functionally non-verbal) showed that microcephaly was 100% specific but only 14% sensitive; the presence of physical anomalies was 86% specific and 34% sensitive. The two tests combined yielded 87% specificity, 47% sensitivity, and an odds ratio of 4.8:1 for poor outcome. Separating essential from complex autism should be the first diagnostic step for children with autism spectrum disorders as it allows better prognostication and counseling. Definition of more homogeneous populations should increase power of research analyses.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Autistic Disorder / classification*
  • Autistic Disorder / diagnosis*
  • Autistic Disorder / psychology
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / pathology
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Family Health
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Intelligence
  • Intelligence Tests
  • Language Disorders / diagnosis
  • Logistic Models
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prognosis
  • Radiography