Identifying autism symptom severity trajectories across childhood

Einat Waizbard-Bartov, Emilio Ferrer, Brianna Heath, Sally J. Rogers, Christine Wu Nordahl, Marjorie Solomon, David G. Amaral

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


An individual's autism symptom severity level can change across childhood. The prevalence and direction of change, however, are still not well understood. Nor are the characteristics of children that experience change. Symptom severity trajectories were evaluated from early to middle childhood (approximately ages 3–11) for 182 autistic children. Symptom severity change was evaluated using individual change scores and the Reliable Change Index. Fifty-one percent of participants experienced symptom severity change: 27% of children decreased in severity, 24% increased and 49% were stable. Symptom severity decreases were more common during early childhood. Severity increases occurred at both early and middle childhood but increase in social affect severity was especially prominent during middle childhood. Most children experienced significant change during only one period and remained stable during the other. Girls decreased more and increased less in symptom severity than boys. Children that increased in severity decreased in adaptive functioning across childhood. Exploratory analyses indicated that a decrease in severity was associated with higher parental education level and older parental age at the time of the child's birth. Conversely, increase in autism severity was associated with lower parental education level and younger parental age at the child's birth. These findings extend recent observations that symptom severity change is more likely than previously appreciated. An understanding of the role of both biological and sociodemographic factors in determining a child's symptom trajectory may factor into future decisions on allocation and type of interventions distributed to young autistic children. Lay Summary: We studied whether a child's autism severity changed from initial diagnosis until middle childhood (ages 3–11). We found that 27% of the children decreased in severity, 24% increased and the rest stayed the same. Symptom severity decreases were more common during early childhood while severity increases were more prominent during middle childhood. We also found that girls were more likely to decrease than boys. Whether a child decreased or increased is related, in part, to parental characteristics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalAutism Research
StateAccepted/In press - 2022
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Genetics(clinical)


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