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Egenis · News

Autism diagnosis and social skills

Issued 13.09.2012: released 06.09.2012


New research examines the effects of an autism diagnosis on children's development of social skills.


Research by Egenis staff published in Social Science and Medicine suggests that a diagnosis of autism has little effect on children’s development of social skills. As debate continues over the benefits or otherwise of early diagnosis, the authors suggest that “continued examination of the association between diagnosis and outcome is essential”, particularly in the context of the clinical trend of rapidly rising rates of diagnosis.

The researchers, from the University of Bristol as well as Egenis, examined data from a long-term study, the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) and have published their findings in ‘Diagnosis as a social determinant: The development of prosocial behaviour before and after an autism spectrum diagnosis’.

“Our results do not provide any evidence that ASD diagnosis can be considered as a social determinant of symptom outcome in terms of impaired development in prosocial interaction,” explains Dr Ginny Russell, Egenis Research Fellow. “Children with autistic symptoms do have impaired prosocial behaviours, but obtaining a diagnosis of ASD may not impact on their social development. Overall, our study provides no conclusive evidence that social behaviours are adversely affected by diagnosis, or improve as a result.

“The study does suggest treatment was not effective in ameliorating poor prosocial skills, suggesting the ‘intractability’ of autism. This has implications for diagnosis as treatment is given as a rationale for diagnosis.” Dr Russell adds: “ It is possible that without diagnosis, prosocial behaviour would have become even more impaired, and diagnosis and subsequent intervention ameliorated this effect. While the average effect of diagnosis was minimal, it is possible that for particular individuals the effect of diagnosis may be negative while for others it might be positive.”

The researchers point out that although improving social development would qualify as a goal of treatment , a lack of improvement in social behaviours does not mean diagnosis is not worthwhile. Other benefits of ASD diagnosis may be gained, such as improvements in other behaviours or improved family functioning, and diagnosis provides access to a range of services. They also point out: “We did not know if the children who received more intervention than others had better prosocial behaviours, or if the type of intervention an individual child received was targeted at influencing prosocial behaviour. It is certainly possible that interventions improved other aspects of child behaviour which we did not analyse, or improved aspects of parent–child relationships.”

The researchers write that:” Before stating the rationale for ASD diagnosis … that it leads to treatment (which will ameliorate core deficits), the evidence should be evaluated carefully. Despite 20 years of autism intervention research, therapies and treatments that are effective for all children have yet to be developed.” They call for further research, suggesting that it “will surely help to shed light on current debates about the repercussions of an autism spectrum diagnosis for children, and debate regarding diagnosis as a social determinant per se.”


Abstract picture of coloured neurons.