Developmental Variability in Autism Across 17 000 Autistic Individuals and 4000 Siblings Without an Autism Diagnosis: Comparisons by Cohort, Intellectual Disability, Genetic Etiology, and Age at Diagnosis

Abstract

Importance: Presence of developmental delays in autism is well established, yet few studies have characterized variability in developmental milestone attainment in this population.

Objective: To characterize variability in the age at which autistic individuals attain key developmental milestones based on co-occurring intellectual disability (ID), presence of a rare disruptive genetic variant associated with neurodevelopmental disorders (NDD), age at autism diagnosis, and research cohort membership.

Design: The study team harmonized data from 4 cross-sectional autism cohorts: the Autism Genetics Research Exchange (n = 3284; 1997-2015), The Autism Simplex Collection (n = 694; 2008-2011), the Simons Simplex Collection (n = 2753; 2008-2011), and the Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge (n = 10 367; 2016-present). The last sample further included 4145 siblings without an autism diagnosis or ID.

Participants: Convenience sample of 21 243 autistic individuals or their siblings without an autism diagnosis aged 4 to 17 years.

Main outcomes and measures: Parents reported ages at which participants attained key milestones including smiling, sitting upright, crawling, walking, spoon-feeding self, speaking words, speaking phrases, and acquiring bladder and bowel control. A total of 5295 autistic individuals, and their biological parents, were genetically characterized to identify de novo variants in NDD-associated genes. The study team conducted time-to-event analyses to estimate and compare percentiles in time with milestone attainment across autistic individuals, subgroups of autistic individuals, and the sibling sample.

Results: Seventeen thousand ninety-eight autistic individuals (mean age, 9.15 years; 80.8% male) compared with 4145 siblings without autism or ID (mean age, 10.2 years; 50.2% female) showed delays in milestone attainment, with median (IQR) delays ranging from 0.7 (0.3-1.6) to 19.7 (11.4-32.2) months. More severe and more variable delays in autism were associated with the presence of co-occurring ID, carrying an NDD-associated rare genetic variant, and being diagnosed with autism by age 5 years. More severe and more variable delays were also associated with membership in earlier study cohorts, consistent with autism’s diagnostic and ascertainment expansion over the last 30 years.

Conclusions and relevance: As the largest summary to date of developmental milestone attainment in autism, to our knowledge, this study demonstrates substantial developmental variability across different conditions and provides important context for understanding the phenotypic and etiological heterogeneity of autism.