Can kids grow out of autism?

Ten to 20 percent of autistic children “recover” as they get older, often after intensive behavior therapy, says Deborah Fein, a University of Connecticut psychology professor. The children were diagnosed correctly as autistic before the age of five, Fein says, and later were diagnosed correctly as not autistic.  Her study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

. . . Leo, a boy in Washington, D.C., who once made no eye contact, who echoed words said to him and often spun around in circles — all classic autism symptoms. Now he is an articulate, social third-grader. His mother, Jayne Lytel, says his teachers call Leo a leader.

Interesting, if true.

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  1. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Wow. I’m so glad to see this. My kid followed this exact pattern, and I’ve never known what to make of it.

  2. Learning behaviors to cope with the disability and outgrowing or overcoming it are two different things. Social behaviors can be learned, but social instincts cannot be learned. That is not to say that autistic children cannot live relatively normal lives and thrive in society. But to suppose that once some behaviors are learned that everything is easy from tree on out is short-sighted at best.

  3. I know very little on this. I do not think it surprising that some autistic children can “outgrow their symptoms”. I wish it happened more often. If Autism is defined by symptoms and behavior and not by some biochemical, instrumental or anatomical test, it is impossible to say who is right. Medical science has been aware that many fatal or chronic disorders can get better all by themselves without or in spite of medical intervention. That is why it can be difficult to test treatments. If 10 percent get better spontaneously it is important to expect better results from any proposed treatment.

  4. Margo/Mom says:

    I am more intrigued than anything else by this–particularly as autism is such a mystery affliction. I think “outgrowing” it is not quite an accurate descriptor. The article notes that most of the children with a changed diagnosis had received intensive treatment. To me this underlines the always important need for early, intensive and appropriate treatment–something many families have to fight very hard to get. Maybe if someone is able to make the case that the intensity can result in outcomes that defer later needs it won’t be so difficult to get.

  5. Parent2 says:

    Autism is not one disorder; I’ve heard researchers refer to it as “the autisms.” It’s quite possible that some 10% of the children in this study’s sample have a condition which improves with age. It would be very interesting to compare these children’s genetic profiles.

    First, the study’s results should be reproduced. Second, correlation is not causation. Not all of the children received intensive therapy. What characteristics do they have in common? What other therapies did the families use, including alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, etc? Did any of the children have autistic siblings, and what were their outcomes?

  6. “It’s quite possible that some 10% of the children in this study’s sample have a condition which improves with age.”

    To follow on the previous post, because the parameters for the definition of autism have been expanded over the last several years, it is quite possible that the 10% who “recovered” were not “autistic” at all. See Gernsbacher, M., Dawson, M., & Goldsmith, H. (2005). Three reasons not to believe in an autism epidemic. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14 (2), 55-58.

  7. 5 years ago, when middle son was starting first grade, the school diagnosed him as autistic. I did not agree and the services provided to him on a speech/lang IEP where no different than Autism Spectrum Disorder.

    The changes over the last five years have been incredible. He is finally close to grade level with minimal assistance. We now truly believe that he will go on to graduate high school and then college.

    Again, this year, a different school diagnosed him as having ASP. This time I sought medical advice. What the specialist told me was my son never developed the correct pathways to thinking and has adapted new ones to cope.

    Has he outgrown autism? His behaviors are still a little different than children his own age but very similar to Dad and Dad’s military peers. Maybe he was never truly autistic. But that diagnosis is thrown around so much it will be difficult to know whether children can truly recover.