Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), characterized by deficits in social communication and the presence of restricted, repetitive behaviors or interests, is a neurodevelopmental disorder affecting approximately 2.3% children aged 8 years in the US and approximately 2.2% of adults. This review summarizes evidence on the diagnosis and treatment of ASD.
The estimated prevalence of ASD has been increasing in the US, from 1.1% in 2008 to 2.3% in 2018, which is likely associated with changes in diagnostic criteria, improved performance of screening and diagnostic tools, and increased public awareness. No biomarkers specific to the diagnosis of ASD have been identified. Common early signs and symptoms of ASD in a child’s first 2 years of life include no response to name when called, no or limited use of gestures in communication, and lack of imaginative play. The criterion standard for the diagnosis of ASD is a comprehensive evaluation with a multidisciplinary team of clinicians and is based on semistructured direct observation of the child’s behavior and semistructured caregiver interview focused on the individual’s development and behaviors using standardized measures, such as the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule-Second Edition and the Autism Diagnostic Interview. These diagnostic measures have sensitivity of 91% and 80% and specificity of 76% and 72%, respectively. Compared with people without ASD, individuals with ASD have higher rates of depression (20% vs 7%), anxiety (11% vs 5%), sleep difficulties (13% vs 5%), and epilepsy (21% with co-occurring intellectual disability vs 0.8%). Intensive behavioral interventions, such as the Early Start Denver Model, are beneficial in children 5 years or younger for improvement in language, play, and social communication (small to medium effect size based on standardized mean difference). Pharmacotherapy is indicated for co-occurring psychiatric conditions, such as emotion dysregulation or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Risperidone and aripiprazole can improve irritability and aggression (standardized mean difference of 1.1, consistent with a large effect size) compared with placebo. Psychostimulants are effective for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (standardized mean difference of 0.6, consistent with a moderate effect size) compared with placebo. These medications are associated with adverse effects including, most commonly, changes in appetite, weight, and sleep.
Conclusions and Relevance
ASD affects approximately 2.3% of children aged 8 years and approximately 2.2% of adults in the US. First-line therapy consists of behavioral interventions, while co-occurring psychiatric conditions, such as anxiety or aggression, may be treated with specific behavioral therapy or medication.