Background: Exploring ways to improve the trajectory and symptoms of autism spectrum disorder is prevalent in research, but less is known about the natural prognosis of autism spectrum disorder and course of symptoms. The objective of this study was to examine the temporal stability of autism spectrum disorder and autism diagnosis, and the longitudinal trajectories of autism core symptom severity. We furthermore sought to identify possible predictors for change.
Methods: We searched PubMed, PsycInfo, EMBASE, Web of Science, Cochrane Library up to October 2015 for prospective cohort studies addressing the autism spectrum disorder/autism diagnostic stability, and prospective studies of intervention effects. We included people of all ages with autism spectrum disorder/autism or at risk of having autism spectrum disorder, who were diagnosed and followed up for at least 12 months using the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS). Both continuous ADOS scores and dichotomous diagnostic categories were pooled in random-effects meta-analysis and meta-regression.
Results: Of 1443 abstracts screened, 44 were eligible of which 40 studies contained appropriate data for meta-analysis. A total of 5771 participants from 7 months of age to 16.5 years were included. Our analyses showed no change in ADOS scores across time as measured by Calibrated Severity Scores (mean difference [MD] = 0.05, 95% CI -0.26 to 0.36). We observed a minor but statistically significant change in ADOS total raw scores (MD = -1.51, 95% CI -2.70 to -0.32). There was no improvement in restricted and repetitive behaviours (standardised MD [SMD] = -0.04, 95% CI -0.19 to 0.11), but a minor improvement in social affect over time (SMD = -0.31, 95% CI -0.50 to -0.12). No changes were observed for meeting the autism spectrum disorder criteria over time (risk difference [RD] = -0.01, 95% CI -0.03 to 0.01), but a significant change for meeting autism criteria over time (RD = -0.18, 95% CI -0.29 to -0.07). On average, there was a high heterogeneity between studies (I2 range: 65.3% to 93.1%).
Discussion: While 18% of participants shifted from autism to autism spectrum disorder diagnosis, the overall autism spectrum disorder prevalence was unchanged. Overall autism core symptoms were remarkably stable over time across childhood indicating that intervention studies should focus on other areas, such as quality of life and adaptive functioning. However, due to high heterogeneity between studies and a number of limitations in the studies, the results need to be interpreted with caution.