Autism in adults test

Intelligence quotients (IQs) of toddlers with autism closely predict how they will fare as adults, reports a 17-year study published 9 December in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry

Tests administered between the ages of 2 to 3 years can also forecast whether high-functioning toddlers with autism will have average or higher IQs by age 19 — or even beat the odds and overcome their autism diagnoses, the study suggests.

"In the brighter kids, we think it does make a difference if parents start doing [interventions] right away rather than just waiting to see what happens, " says lead investigator Catherine Lord, director of the Institute for Brain Development at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

Emily Elert

Revealing patterns: Researchers grouped 19-year-old adults by verbal IQ scores above 70 and below 70, then mapped their test scores from ages 2 to 19.

The report joins a growing number of studies tracking people with autism over long periods of time. In particular, it may boost clinicians’ confidence that IQ assessments at age 2 or 3 years predict later abilities and behavior, and help clinicians advise parents on a child’s outlook.

"When you're giving the diagnosis for the first time in a 2- or 3-year-old, the question that parents ask first is, 'How are they going to be when they're adults? How are they going to do through school?'" says Tony Charman, chair of clinical child psychology at King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry in the U.K., who was not involved in the study.

IQ tests only tell part of the story, however. It's unclear why some of the high-functioning 2-year-olds in the study made great strides by age 3 and later grew out of their autism diagnosis, whereas most of the others did not.

"There are other factors that are operating that make the difference between a good outcome and a poor one, " says Patricia Howlin, professor emeritus of clinical child psychology at King's College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, who was not involved in the study. "The challenge now is to look at what those factors are.”

Therapy lessons:

In the study, Lord and her colleagues evaluated 85 children with autism at ages 2, 3, 9 and 19 years. The children, assembled from four autism centers in North Carolina and an autism clinic in Chicago, took a battery of diagnostic tests that measured the severity of their symptoms, including repetitive behavior, and assessed whether they had acquired adaptive skills, such as learning to eat with a spoon by 2 years of age.

The study also assessed verbal intelligence, with tests asking children to respond to their own names or to follow spoken instructions, for example. In addition, the researchers tested nonverbal intelligence with tasks such as building complex block towers. The families provided information about any interventions and medication use.

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