Can we distinguish the consequences of early maltreatment on child behaviour from idiopathic autism?

Arch Dis Child. 2023 May;108(5):392-397. doi: 10.1136/archdischild-2022-324156. Epub 2023 Jan 6.


Objective: To identify clinical features that could distinguish children presenting with autistic-like features and a history of severe early maltreatment from children with idiopathic autism spectrum disorders (ASDs).

Design: Matched-comparison study.

Setting: Great Ormond Street Hospital, UK.

Participants: 46 children with a history of early maltreatment, mean (SD) age 10.6 (3.3) years and 47 children with an ASD, mean (SD) age 10.4 (2.9) years.

Main outcome measures: A range of standardised interview and observational measures that are designed to quantify autistic traits. Caregiver and teacher reports were obtained on broader aspects of behavioural and emotional adjustment.

Results: Both groups had normal range IQ and were predominantly male. On the basis of autistic traits alone, caregiver interview and structured observation concurred that over 60% of the formerly maltreated children met criteria for an ASD. Autistic symptom profiles were very similar in both groups, although children with idiopathic ASD had significantly more marked repetitive and stereotyped behaviours. Teacher and caregiver reports indicated that children from both groups had an increased and broadly similar prevalence of emotional and behavioural disorders.

Conclusion: Children presenting with a history of early maltreatment, who show autistic traits of behaviour, have a high risk of meeting diagnostic criteria for ASD. Their symptom profiles are virtually indistinguishable from children with idiopathic autism.

Keywords: autism; child abuse; child development; paediatrics; psychology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder* / epidemiology
  • Autistic Disorder* / diagnosis
  • Autistic Disorder* / epidemiology
  • Autistic Disorder* / psychology
  • Child
  • Child Behavior
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Prevalence