HealthDay News — More than 10% of preschool-age children diagnosed with autism saw some improvement in their symptoms by age 6. And 20% of the children made some gains in everyday functioning, a new study found.

The findings were published online in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

Canadian researchers followed 421 children from diagnosis (between ages 2 and 4) until age 6, collecting information at four points in time to see how their symptoms and their ability to adapt to daily life fared.

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“Between 11 and 20% did remarkably well,” said study leader Peter Szatmari, MD, chief of the Child and Youth Mental Health Collaborative at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

However, improvement in symptom severity wasn’t necessarily tied to gains in everyday functioning, Szatmari said. Eleven percent of the children experienced some improvement in symptoms. About 20%  improved in what experts call “adaptive functioning” — meaning how they function in daily life. These weren’t necessarily the same children, he said.

“You can have a child over time who learns to talk, socialize and interact, but still has symptoms like flapping, rocking and repetitive speech,” Szatmari said. “Or you can have kids who aren’t able to talk and interact, but their symptoms like flapping reduce remarkably over time.”

The interplay between these two areas — symptom severity and ability to function — is a mystery, and should be the topic of more research, Szatmari said.

One take-home point of the research, Szatmari said, is that there’s a need to address both symptoms and everyday functioning in children with autism spectrum disorder.

“If it were my kid, I would want adaptive functioning to improve and [feel] symptoms are less important,” he said. “Adaptive functioning determines your place in the world.”

Only 66 of the study participants were girls, and Szatmari found they had less severe symptoms and more improvement in symptoms than boys. The earlier the children were diagnosed, the more likely they were to show improvement in functioning, the study found.


Szatmari P, et al. Developmental Trajectories of Symptom Severity and Adaptive Functioning in an Inception Cohort of Preschool Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder. JAMA Psychiatry. 2015; doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.2463.