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Monday 26th August 2019

Autism varies among social groups

3rd April 2012

Social and communication skills may improve at very different rates among children with autism, with social and ethnic factors appearing to play a role, a new study has shown.


Researchers who tracked around 7,000 children with an autism diagnosis found that children whose symptoms were milder at the time of diagnosis were likely to fare better later in life, but some with more severe difficulties early on sometimes "bloomed" out of them by primary school age.

Study lead author Christine Fountain said there was a wide variety of children with different kinds of symptoms on the autism spectrum, and the research team had set out to find out how those symptoms played out in the long term.

Fountain's team used data from centres in California that test and diagnose children with autism, using staff evaluations of children aged 2-14, only following children who had had at least four annual evaluations.

Most of the children's communication and social skills improved over time, but some improved far more quickly than others, the researchers found.

Writing in the journal Pediatrics, they reported that autistic symptoms appeared to be less severe among white children, and among those whose parents were highly educated.

Such children were also more likely to see a sudden improvement between the ages of 3 and 12, compared with other social and ethnic groups.

However, children who were also learning disabled were unlikely to improve much, and had a much worse prognosis, according to Louisiana State University autism and learning disability expert Johnny Matson.

He said that children with autism and a normal IQ benefited far more from intensive therapy.

However, repetitive behaviours did not improve much over the course of the study.

The ethnic and social differences between children with autism were probably linked to economic and social privilege, with such families more likely to have access to high-quality healthcare, Matson said.

However, he said it was difficult to interpret changes in autism over time, as the study had attempted.

Matson said that while all children with autism would probably improve, not all of them would improve by the same amount.

However, Lurie Center for Autism expert Andrew Zimmerman said his team had seen similar "trajectories" in the autistic children they had treated.

Fountain said that equal access to the best autism treatment, regardless of social background and ability to pay, was crucial to helping autistic children from ethnic minority and poorer families.

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