Age 6 Could Represent a Key Developmental Point for Kids with Autism

April 19, 2021

Study Finds 2 Trajectories: Continuously Improving & Improving then Plateauing

Researchers from McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada have recently found that the severity of autism traits decrease for most children on the spectrum from age 3 to 6. Sadly, their new long-term study also shows that this positive developmental trajectory does not hold steady. Progress stalled for almost three-quarters of the study’s participants at age 6. These findings propose that just as children on the spectrum begin elementary school, they could be entering a crucial turning point in their development. The McMaster researchers suggest that families, clinics, schools and communities offer additional help for kids at this critical age to help keep their development on track. This new study supports the research that David Amaral, a faculty member at the UC Davis MIND Institute, did last year. Amaral co-authored a similar study that showed autism severity can change during childhood. He and his co-authors specifically looked at developmental trajectories of young children age 3 to 6. However, this MIND Institute research ended at age 6. In contrast, this new McMaster research measured autism trait severity for 187 children at different ages during a longer period of time. These measurements were taken at the age of diagnosis (on average at 41 months) and again at ages 4, 6, and 10. The study’s participants fell in two groups based upon how their traits changed over the course of the research. The study discovered that approximately 73% of the study’s children showed a slight decrease in trait severity up to age 6, but then no further change past that point. Their decrease in autism symptoms seemed to stall or plateau. The other 27% demonstrated a larger decrease in trait severity by age 6 and then they continued with a trajectory of decreased symptoms past that age, but at a slower rate. The children who continued to improve started out with slightly less severe traits than the children in the other group. Additionally, this group performed better on tests of cognition, language and daily living skills. The McMaster research team aims to investigate this phenomenon even more to gain additional understanding about why some children’s trajectories stall. This knowledge will hopefully lead to more personalized interventions that can keep every child with ASD on a positive developmental track.  

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