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Systematic review of tools to measure outcomes for young children with autism spectrum disorder

Health Technology Assessment, No. 19.41

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Author Information
Southampton (UK): NIHR Journals Library; .


The study found 12 tools among those reviewed which were the most valid overall in monitoring progress and measuring outcomes for young children with autism spectrum disorder, and provides a systematic evaluation of the measurement properties and qualities of these tools, along with recommendations of priority targets for research.



The needs of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are complex and this is reflected in the number and diversity of outcomes assessed and measurement tools used to collect evidence about children’s progress. Relevant outcomes include improvement in core ASD impairments, such as communication, social awareness, sensory sensitivities and repetitiveness; skills such as social functioning and play; participation outcomes such as social inclusion; and parent and family impact.


To examine the measurement properties of tools used to measure progress and outcomes in children with ASD up to the age of 6 years. To identify outcome areas regarded as important by people with ASD and parents.


The MeASURe (Measurement in Autism Spectrum disorder Under Review) research collaboration included ASD experts and review methodologists. We undertook systematic review of tools used in ASD early intervention and observational studies from 1992 to 2013; systematic review, using the COSMIN checklist (Consensus-based Standards for the selection of health Measurement Instruments) of papers addressing the measurement properties of identified tools in children with ASD; and synthesis of evidence and gaps. The review design and process was informed throughout by consultation with stakeholders including parents, young people with ASD, clinicians and researchers.


The conceptual framework developed for the review was drawn from the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health, including the domains ‘Impairments’, ‘Activity Level Indicators’, ‘Participation’, and ‘Family Measures’. In review 1, 10,154 papers were sifted – 3091 by full text – and data extracted from 184; in total, 131 tools were identified, excluding observational coding, study-specific measures and those not in English. In review 2, 2665 papers were sifted and data concerning measurement properties of 57 (43%) tools were extracted from 128 papers. Evidence for the measurement properties of the reviewed tools was combined with information about their accessibility and presentation. Twelve tools were identified as having the strongest supporting evidence, the majority measuring autism characteristics and problem behaviour. The patchy evidence and limited scope of outcomes measured mean these tools do not constitute a ‘recommended battery’ for use. In particular, there is little evidence that the identified tools would be good at detecting change in intervention studies. The obvious gaps in available outcome measurement include well-being and participation outcomes for children, and family quality-of-life outcomes, domains particularly valued by our informants (young people with ASD and parents).


This is the first systematic review of the quality and appropriateness of tools designed to monitor progress and outcomes of young children with ASD. Although it was not possible to recommend fully robust tools at this stage, the review consolidates what is known about the field and will act as a benchmark for future developments. With input from parents and other stakeholders, recommendations are made about priority targets for research.

Future work:

Priorities include development of a tool to measure child quality of life in ASD, and validation of a potential primary outcome tool for trials of early social communication intervention.

Study registration:

This study is registered as PROSPERO CRD42012002223.


The National Institute for Health Research Health Technology Assessment programme.


Article history

The research reported in this issue of the journal was funded by the HTA programme as project number 11/22/03. The contractual start date was in June 2012. The draft report began editorial review in April 2014 and was accepted for publication in July 2014. The authors have been wholly responsible for all data collection, analysis and interpretation, and for writing up their work. The HTA editors and publisher have tried to ensure the accuracy of the authors’ report and would like to thank the reviewers for their constructive comments on the draft document. However, they do not accept liability for damages or losses arising from material published in this report.

Declared competing interests of authors

Ann S Le Couteur is one of the authors of the Autism Diagnostic Interview but receives no royalties; Elaine M McColl is a member of the NIHR Journals Library Editorial Group.

Copyright © Queen’s Printer and Controller of HMSO 2015. This work was produced by McConachie et al. under the terms of a commissioning contract issued by the Secretary of State for Health. This issue may be freely reproduced for the purposes of private research and study and extracts (or indeed, the full report) may be included in professional journals provided that suitable acknowledgement is made and the reproduction is not associated with any form of advertising. Applications for commercial reproduction should be addressed to: NIHR Journals Library, National Institute for Health Research, Evaluation, Trials and Studies Coordinating Centre, Alpha House, University of Southampton Science Park, Southampton SO16 7NS, UK.

Included under terms of UK Non-commercial Government License.

Bookshelf ID: NBK299302DOI: 10.3310/hta19410


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