Majority of children with autism may be ‘doing well’ afterall

Scientists have found through a study, published in JAMA Open, that majority of children with autism are showing positive outcomes than previously thought.

ASD refers to a group of neurodevelopmental conditions resulting in challenges related to communication, social understanding and behaviour. One in 100 people may have ASD and although a person can be diagnosed at any time, ASD symptoms generally appear and are diagnosed in the first few years of life.

The study is a strengths-based approach to outcome assessments in children with an ASD diagnosis wherein scientists evaluated and measured participants’ proficiency (level of competency) and growth (improvement over time) in five key developmental health areas: communication, socialization, activities of daily living and emotional health (internalizing and externalizing).

The study found that 80 per cent of children experienced growth or proficiency in at least one of the five domains and 23 per cent of children were doing well in four or more of the domains by mid childhood. Core to the study approach was shifting the definition of a ‘good outcome’ to ‘doing well’.

Historically, research literature and outcome evaluations have focused on the deficits people with ASD may experience in intellectual or skills development and less has been studied in the Canadian paediatric context.

The researchers followed 272 children diagnosed with ASD from clinics across Canada from the ages of 2 to 10 years old, or mid childhood, a notable age as children transition to greater autonomy and increased social and academic demands.

Unique to the approach was the use of growth as a measurement, which allowed for comparison of whether an individual child improved in a domain against their younger selves.

The study also examined contextual factors such as household income, parent coping and family functioning (such as positive communication and support among family members).

The findings indicated that higher household income and better family functioning were important predictors in several aspects of doing well — suggesting that adequate income and a well-functioning family may help improve outcomes for a child with ASD.

A strengths-based perspective on an autism diagnosis can help support a more flexible approach to developing future interventions that’s tailored to each child.

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