Background: Few studies have examined the variability in outcomes of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at age 2. Research is needed to understand the children whose symptoms – or diagnoses – change over time. The objectives of this study were to examine the behavioral and diagnostic outcomes of a carefully defined sample of 2-year-old children with ASD, and to identify child and environmental factors that contribute to variability in outcomes at age 4.
Methods: Forty-eight children diagnosed with autism or pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDDNOS) at age 2 were followed to age 4. Diagnostic measures included the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule – Generic (ADOS-G) and clinical diagnosis at ages 2 and 4, and the ADI-R at age 4.
Results: Diagnostic stability for an ASD diagnosis (autism or PDDNOS) was 63%, and for an autism diagnosis was 68%. Children who failed to meet diagnostic criteria for ASD at follow-up were more likely to: 1) be 30 months or younger at initial evaluation; 2) have milder symptoms of autism, particularly in the social domain; and 3) have higher cognitive scores at age 2. No differences between children with stable and unstable diagnoses were found for amount of intervention services received. Among the children with unstable diagnoses, all but one continued to have developmental disorders, most commonly in the area of language.
Conclusions: The stability of ASD was lower in the present study than has been reported previously, a finding largely attributable to children who were diagnosed at 30 months or younger. Implications for clinical practice are discussed.