Early social skills are emerging as one reliable indicator of ASD. Some research suggests that children who lack social gestures are likely to have pronounced autism traits later on and follow a lower skill trajectory.
In a 2017 study of 199 autistic toddlers and preschoolers, researchers found that the children who made few social-communicative gestures, such as pointing and imitating adults, had more severe autism traits a year later. The research showed these social behaviors predicted autism severity better than repetitive behaviors or living skills.
Conversely, children whose autism traits diminish tend to be relatively social early on. A 2020 study looked at toddlers who sought out social interactions and showed good pointing skills (to indicate objects) who ended up with only mild autism traits as adolescents.
Early Intellectual Abilities & Disabilities
Early intellectual ability can be another early indicator of ASD. In one study, autistic children who had intellectual disability (defined as having an IQ below 70) as toddlers were likely to show substantial difficulties both socially and academically through the age of 14.
On the other hand, children who show a substantial easing of autism traits and advances in life skills tend to be those without intellectual disability, experts say.
Adaptive behaviors can also correlate with future academic success. A 2020 study had researchers analyzing records for 98 autistic adults from a study in which clinicians had evaluated daily living and other skills from ages 2 to 26. Using modeling software, the researchers divided the participants into two groups; those with low- and high-daily living skills.
Children in the high-skills group were more likely than those in the low-skills group to continue their education after high school, according to the research.
Socioeconomic status can be an early indicator of ASD, too. Low-income and minority children with autism tend to have less developed communication and adaptive skills in young adulthood than autistic children from more privileged backgrounds, according to a 2019 report.
Low-income children may have minimal exposure to early intervention programs to address speech, motor, and other difficulties. Family participation in these programs predicts “longer-term outcomes” during adolescence and adulthood.
Many recent studies on genetics may also provide clues to a child’s future. About one-quarter of children with autism have a genetic variant linked to autism. Some of these may give rise to characteristic developmental paths. Data from a 2020 study looked at 65 people with an ASD-linked variant, aged 5 to 21.
The scientists assessed each person’s skill level and combined those data with families’ recollections about when these children had hit early milestones such as walking and talking. The team found that the children’s developmental course depended on the genetic variant they carry.
Children with an ADNP variant show significant motor delays almost across the board, generally not walking until 20 months or later. However, the earlier they do walk, the higher their scores on nonverbal IQ tests in childhood (ages 4 to 16) and young adulthood. In children with a CHD8 variant, early milestones do not predict their cognitive development as reliably. But the earlier they speak in phrases (whether at age 1 or 4, for example) the better their adaptive skills are likely to be in later childhood and young adulthood.
Research is still being conducted and analyzed on the relationship between genes and ASD.
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Mapping the Futures of Autistic Children, spectrumnews.org