Autism spectrum disorder


Autism spectrum disorder is a construct used to describe individuals with a specific combination of impairments in social communication and repetitive behaviours, highly restricted interests and/or sensory behaviours beginning early in life. The worldwide prevalence of autism is just under 1%, but estimates are higher in high-income countries. Although gross brain pathology is not characteristic of autism, subtle anatomical and functional differences have been observed in post-mortem, neuroimaging and electrophysiological studies. Initially, it was hoped that accurate measurement of behavioural phenotypes would lead to specific genetic subtypes, but genetic findings have mainly applied to heterogeneous groups that are not specific to autism. Psychosocial interventions in children can improve specific behaviours, such as joint attention, language and social engagement, that may affect further development and could reduce symptom severity. However, further research is necessary to identify the long-term needs of people with autism, and treatments and the mechanisms behind them that could result in improved independence and quality of life over time. Families are often the major source of support for people with autism throughout much of life and need to be considered, along with the perspectives of autistic individuals, in both research and practice.

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Fig. 1: Theories and findings regarding autism mechanisms, outcomes and heterogeneity.
Fig. 2: Environmental risk factors for autism.
Fig. 3: Encoded proteins associated with autism risk.
Fig. 4: Longitudinal trajectories of total brain volume, surface area and cortical thickness in autism.
Fig. 5: Co-occurring disorders.
Fig. 6: Major parental milestones in advocating and supporting their child with autism.
Fig. 7: Changes in daily living scores as predicted by IQ scores and autistic symptoms.


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The authors thank J. McCauley, S. Gaspar, K. Byrne and A. Holbrook from UCLA for help with manuscript preparation. S. Tromans is thanked for his updated review of the epidemiology literature. We recognize the many investigators who contributed research that we cannot cite due to space limitations. C.L. is supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHHD; R01 HD081199), the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH; R01MH081873-01A1) and the Simons Foundation. T.S.B. is supported by grants from the Health and Social Care Information Centre, Leeds, and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR HTA; grant ref. NIHR127337). T.C. is supported by grants from Innovative Medicines Initiative 2 (no. 777394), the Medical Research Council (MRC; grants MR/K021389/1) and the NIHR (grant 13/119/18). J.C. is funded by Autistica. G.D. is supported by the Institut Pasteur. T.F. is supported by the Autism Speaks Foundation. E.J.H.J. is supported by grants from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC; ES/R009368/1), the Innovative Medicines Initiative 2 (no. 777394), the MRC (MR/K021389/1) and the Simons Foundation (609081). R.M.J. acknowledges the Mortimer D. Sackler Family and the NIMH (R01MH114999). J.L.T. is supported by grants from the FAR fund and the NIMH (R34 MH104428, R03 MH 112783 and R01 MH116058). A.P. is partially supported by the Biomedical Research Centre at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and King’s College London and the NIHR (NF-SI-0617-10120). M.W.S. is supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH; MH106934, MH109901, MH110928, MH116487 MH102342, MH111662, MH105575 and MH115747), the Overlook International Foundation and the Simons Foundation. J.V.-V. is supported by the NIH (MH016434 and MH094604), the Simons Foundation and the New York State Psychiatric Institute. The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR, or the Department of Health and Social Care.

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All authors read and edited the full document. Introduction (C.L.), Epidemiology (T.S.B.), Mechanisms/pathophysiology (M.W.S., G.D., R.M.J., T.C. and E.J.H.J.), Diagnosis, screening and prevention (T.C., E.J.H.J. and T.S.B.), Management (T.S.B., T.C., E.J.H.J., J.L.T. and J.V.-V.), Quality of life (J.L.T., J.C. and T.F.), Outlook (C.L. and A.P.), Overview of Primer (C.L.).

Correspondence to Catherine Lord.

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Competing Interests

C.L. acknowledges the receipt of royalties from Western Psychological Services for the sale of the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADIR), the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) and the Social Communication Questionnaire (SCQ). T.S.B. has received royalties from Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press. T.C. has served as a consultant to F. Hoffmann-La Roche. and has received royalties from Guilford Publications and Sage Publications. T.F. has received federal funding research support from, acted as a consultant to, received travel support from, and/or received a speaker’s honorarium from the Brain and Behaviour Research Foundation, Bristol-Myers Squibb, the Cole Family Research Fund, EcoEos, Forest Laboratories, Ingalls Foundation, IntegraGen, Kugona LLC, the National Institutes of Health, Roche Pharma, Shire Development and the Simons Foundation. J.L.T. receives compensation from Sage Publishers for editorial work. A.P. receives royalties from Imperial College Press, Oxford University Press and Western Psychological Services. M.W.S. serves on the scientific advisory boards and has stock or stock options for Arett Pharmaceuticals and BlackThorn Therapeutics. J.V.-V. has consulted or served on an advisory board for Novartis, Roche Pharmaceuticals and SynapDx, has received research funding from Forest, Novartis, Roche Pharmaceuticals, Seaside Therapeutics, SynapDx, and has received an editorial stipend from Springer and Wiley. All other authors declare no competing interests.

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Lord, C., Brugha, T.S., Charman, T. et al. Autism spectrum disorder. Nat Rev Dis Primers 6, 5 (2020).

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