Yet researchers have assembled a rich body of data about how autistic people do over time and can provide certain kinds of nuanced projections. The work points to several broad life trajectories for autistic children — rough sketches of how a child’s adolescence and adulthood may unfold. The data also point to subtle, early behavioral markers of future growth or difficulties in specific areas, as well as genetic variants that affect the arc of a child’s trajectory. Some of the research could help clinicians gauge an autistic child’s risk of having mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression as well.
Such forecasts can give families a general idea of how to plan for the years ahead. “No matter what the outcome is going to be, that unknown is really challenging for families,” says Anne Arnett, a child psychologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. “When you can take away the unknown, or at least give them some idea of what to expect over time, that can be an intervention in and of itself to help families prepare.” The predictions can also point clinicians to therapies that enable children to build on their strengths as they try to ease the children’s difficulties. “There’s a lot of variability in brain growth, and it’s really worth pursuing early interventions to try to support that brain growth,” Arnett says.