Persistence of Autism Spectrum Disorder From Early Childhood Through School Age

JAMA Pediatr. 2023 Nov 1;177(11):1197-1205. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2023.4003.


Importance: While the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) continues to increase and early diagnosis is emphasized, there is limited information on outcomes for children diagnosed with ASD in early childhood using contemporary diagnostic criteria.

Objectives: To determine the frequency with which children who are clinically diagnosed with ASD at 12 to 36 months of age continue to meet diagnostic criteria for ASD at 5 to 7 years of age and to evaluate whether baseline child-specific and demographic characteristics and receipt of interventions are associated with ASD persistence.

Design, setting, and participants: In this natural history cohort study, children who received a clinical ASD diagnosis at 12 to 36 months of age underwent a research diagnostic assessment at 5 to 7 years of age. Research assessments occurred from August 14, 2018, to January 8, 2022.

Intervention: Children received community-based interventions, and parents provided details about interventions received.

Main outcomes and measures: The main outcome was persistence of ASD diagnosis based on current functioning. An experienced research psychologist assigned an ASD diagnosis (present or absent) according to criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth Edition) after the research assessment. The research assessment included administration of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule-2, Autism Diagnostic Interview-Research, and a cognitive measure.

Results: Of the 213 participants diagnosed with ASD at initial clinical assessment (mean [SD] age, 24.6 [3.9] months; 177 boys [83.1%]), 79 (37.1%) did not continue to meet diagnostic criteria for ASD (nonpersistent ASD) at research assessment (mean [SD] age, 74.3 [7.1] months). All children with nonpersistent ASD had IQ of at least 70, while there was a bimodal distribution of IQ for those with persistent ASD (46 with IQ <70 and 88 with IQ ≥70). All children received some interventions, and 201 (94.4%) received ASD-specific intervention, mostly applied behavioral analysis. In a multilevel logistic regression model, the only variables associated with increased odds of being in the nonpersistent ASD group at 6 years of age were higher baseline adaptive skills (b coefficient = -0.287 [SE, 0.108]) and female sex (b = 0.239 [SE, 0.064]).

Conclusions and relevance: The findings of this cohort study suggest that among toddlers diagnosed with ASD, baseline adaptive function and sex may be associated with persistence of ASD.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder* / diagnosis
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder* / epidemiology
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder* / therapy
  • Autistic Disorder*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Prevalence
  • Young Adult