Autism spectrum disorder and autistic traits in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children: precursors and early signs

J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2012 Mar;51(3):249-260.e25. doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2011.12.009. Epub 2012 Feb 3.


Objective: To chart the emergence of precursors and early signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autistic traits in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, a prospective longitudinal cohort study of the surviving offspring of 14,541 pregnant women from southwestern England with an expected delivery date between April 1991 and December 1992.

Method: Parents' contemporaneous reports of their infant's development (241 questionnaire responses collected up to 30 months of age) were examined in relation to the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder by age 11 years (n = 86) and a measure of autistic traits, derived by factor analysis.

Results: Among the children later diagnosed with ASD, concerns about vision and hearing were more often reported in the first year, and differences in social, communication, and fine motor skills were evident from 6 months of age. Repetitive behaviors and differences in play, imitation, and feeding habits were reported in the second year. Differences in temperament emerged at 24 months of age and bowel habit by 30 months. All of these early signs were strongly associated with the presence of autistic traits in the rest of the population and these differences were often evident in the first year of development. Over the first 30 months of development, the best predictors of both later ASD and autistic traits included the Social Achievement and Communication scores from the Denver Developmental Screening Test, measures of communicative skills (Vocabulary and Combines Words) from the MacArthur Infant Communicative Development Inventories, and a repetitive behavior score.

Conclusions: Precursors, early signs, and other developmental differences were reported in the first year of development among children from the general population who later developed autism spectrum disorder and subtler autistic traits. Other differences emerged and unfolded as development progressed. The findings confirm the long-held suspicion that early differences underscore the multifaceted nature of autism spectrum disorder and the broader autism phenotype, and highlight the centrality of impairments in social communication skills.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Age of Onset
  • Child
  • Child Development Disorders, Pervasive* / diagnosis
  • Child Development Disorders, Pervasive* / epidemiology
  • Child Development Disorders, Pervasive* / etiology
  • Child Development Disorders, Pervasive* / psychology
  • Child Development*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Communication
  • Developmental Disabilities* / complications
  • Developmental Disabilities* / diagnosis
  • Developmental Disabilities* / psychology
  • Early Diagnosis
  • Factor Analysis, Statistical
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant Behavior* / classification
  • Infant Behavior* / psychology
  • Male
  • Parents / psychology
  • Play and Playthings / psychology
  • Pregnancy
  • Prospective Studies
  • Social Behavior
  • Stereotyped Behavior