Trajectories of adaptive functioning from early childhood to adolescence in autism: Identifying turning points and key correlates of chronogeneity


Background: Previous research has demonstrated heterogeneous adaptive outcomes across the autism spectrum; however, the current literature remains limited in elucidating turning points and associated factors for longitudinal variability (chronogeneity). To address these empirical gaps, we aimed to provide a finer-grained characterization of trajectories of adaptive functioning from early childhood to adolescence in autism.

Methods: Our sample (N = 406) was drawn from an inception cohort of children diagnosed Autistic at ages 2–5. Adaptive functioning was assessed with Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales (VABS, 2nd Edition) across 6 visits from the time of diagnosis by age 18. Parallel-process latent growth curve modeling were used to estimate domain-level VABS trajectories, followed by latent class growth analysis to identify trajectory subgroups. Child characteristics at diagnosis, family demographics, and participation outcomes at adolescence were compared across subgroups.

Results: Piecewise latent growth models best described VABS trajectories with two turning points identified at around ages 5-6 and 9–10, respectively reflecting transitions into school age and early adolescence. We parsed four VABS trajectory subgroups that vary by level of functioning and change rate for certain domains and periods. Around 16% of the sample exhibited overall adequate functioning (standard score >85) with notable early growth and social adaptation during adolescence. About 21% showed low adaptive functioning (standard score ≤70), with decreasing slopes by age 6 followed by improvements in communication and daily-living skills by age 10. The other two subgroups (63% in total) were characterized by adaptive functioning between low and adequate levels, with relatively stable trajectories entering school age. These subgroups differed most in their cognitive ability at diagnosis, household income, and social participation in adolescence.

Conclusions: We identified key individual and family characteristics and time windows associated with distinct adaptive functioning trajectories, which have important implications for providing timely and tailored supports to Autistic people across developmental stages.

JCPP Advances, e12212