Objective: The goal of this study was to describe the typical longitudinal developmental trajectories of social and communication functioning in children with autism and to determine the correlates of these trajectories.
Methods: Children with autism who were born in California from 1992 through 2001 and enrolled with the California Department of Developmental Services were identified. Subjects with <4 evaluations present in the database were excluded, resulting in a sample of 6975 children aged 2 to 14 years. Score sequences were constructed based on 9 evaluative items for social, communication, and repetitive behavior functioning. Typical trajectories were identified by using group-based latent trajectory modeling, and multinomial logistic regression models were used to determine the odds of classification within each trajectory varied by individual and family-level factors.
Results: Six typical patterns of social, communication, and repetitive behavior functioning were identified. These trajectories displayed significant heterogeneity in developmental pathways, and children whose symptoms were least severe at first diagnosis tended to improve more rapidly than those severely affected. One group of ∼10% of children experienced rapid gains, moving from severely affected to high functioning. Socioeconomic factors were correlated with trajectory outcomes; children with non-Hispanic, white, well-educated mothers were more likely to be high functioning, and minority children with less-educated mothers or intellectual disabilities were very unlikely to experience rapid gains.
Conclusions: Children with autism have heterogeneous developmental pathways. One group of children evidenced remarkable developmental change over time. Understanding what drives these outcomes is thus critical.