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Assessing autism spectrum disorder in children with a background of maltreatment: challenges and guidance


There may be some similarities in the presentation of children who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and those exposed to maltreatment affecting assessment and diagnosis. Overlapping characteristics include difficulties understanding and maintaining relationships, sensitivity to routine and hyper-reactivity to sensory inputs. Children who have been maltreated are at increased risk of various developmental vulnerabilities with both environmental and genetic factors being relevant. The existing epidemiological evidence has found that looked-after children are more likely to screen positively for neurodevelopmental disorders and there are smaller scale studies in adoptive children finding higher rates of ASD than would be expected in the general population. Other research suggests a predominantly genetic basis for this increased risk in keeping with what is generally understood about the aetiology of autism. Children exposed to profound deprivation in Romanian orphanages were found to be at higher risk of a pattern of traits termed ‘quasi autistic’ which tended to reduce following adoption, but these findings have not been replicated in children experiencing maltreatment in birth families. Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) has some overlapping criteria with ASD, but its prevalence is unknown and children with RAD should be more socially reciprocal and not have the same repetitive and restricted behaviours and interests. We recommend experienced multidisciplinary assessment that considers both the possibility of maltreatment in children with ASD and neurodevelopmental vulnerabilities in children who have been maltreated and advise on assessment and management strategies.

  • Child Health
  • Child Development
  • Child Abuse
  • Mental health
  • Child Psychiatry

Data availability statement

Data sharing not applicable as no data sets generated and/or analysed for this study.

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