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Study finds many kids with delays need help with autism symptoms

Varying degrees of autism-related challenges seen in a third of young children with other developmental delays
June 17, 2015

A new study finds that many young children who don’t meet the full criteria for an autism diagnosis nonetheless struggle with varying degrees of autism symptoms. Their challenges deserve attention and early intervention services, the researchers conclude. 

"Our study demonstrates the importance of recognizing autism-related challenges among different types of children, including those with or without an autism diagnosis,” says lead author Lisa Wiggins. “Recognizing autism symptoms in early childhood may encourage interventions catered to the individual child and help researchers learn more about the various ways autism develops."

The findings – part of the larger Study to Explore Early Development (SEED) – appear in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

SEED is an ongoing research initiative by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is following the development of more than 2,000 children, ages 2 to 5, from diverse communities across the United States. SEED’s in-depth assessments of the children allowed Dr. Wiggins and colleagues to group the children into four categories:

* Children who qualify for a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

* Children with other developmental delays and some autism symptoms

* Children with other developmental delays and no autism symptoms

* Children who are developing typically

Around a third of the children with “other developmental delays” also had some symptoms of autism. For example, a child might avoid eye contact, have little interest in other children or get extremely upset by minor changes in routine. Any one or two of these symptoms are insufficient for a diagnosis of ASD. But they can create significant challenges in daily life, the researchers note.

Of the four groups, the children diagnosed with autism clearly had the most problems with learning, challenging behaviors and interacting with others. They were also more likely to have parent-reported symptoms of sensory integration disorder. Sensory integration involves processing and responding to sights, sounds, touch, smells, tastes and other sensations.

Children classified as “other developmental delay with ASD symptoms” had significantly more problems with learning, challenging behaviors and interacting than did the children with developmental delay but no ASD symptoms. Those with developmental delay and ASD symptoms were also more likely to have parent-reported attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) than were the children in any other group.

While the children with diagnosed autism had the greatest need for early learning and behavioral interventions, the investigators concluded that many of those with lesser autism symptoms would likewise benefit from early intervention.

These results support earlier findings – by the Autism Speaks Baby Siblings Research Consortium – that there is a “broader autism phenotype” that includes children whose symptoms fall short of warranting a diagnosis, but who nonetheless would likely benefit from autism-related services. The consortium found that nearly one in three younger siblings of children with autism fall into this group. This is in addition to the one in three younger siblings of affected children who themselves develop autism.

To learn more, see “Study Looks Beyond the Risk of Autism in Baby Siblings.”

The CDC continues to recruit SEED study participants, ages 2 to 5, and their families at sites across the United States. (See map below.) Its research goals include greater understanding of the behavioral and health challenges that often affect children with autism. The study is also designed to foster inclusion of children from groups such as minority communities that have been under-represented in autism research.

To learn more about SEED, including participation, click here.

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