Some children diagnosed with autism recover completely, according to a study in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. A team led by Deborah Fein of the University of Connecticut at Storrs evaluated the social and communications skills of 34 people who had been diagnosed as autistic before the age of 5 and no longer had any symptoms. They ranged in age from 8 to 21 years old.
The “optimal outcome” group did just as well in socialization, communication, face recognition and most language measures as the “typical development” control group. Early in their development, the optimals displayed milder social deficits than others in the high-functioning autistic range, but had “equally severe difficulties with communication and repetitive behaviors.”
“They no longer qualified for the diagnosis,” Dr. Fein told the New York Times. “I want to stress to parents that it’s a minority of kids who are able to do this, and no one should think they somehow missed the boat if they don’t get this outcome.”
Researchers have long known that between 1 and 20 percent of children given an autism diagnosis no longer qualify for one a few years or more later. They have suspected that in most cases the diagnosis was mistaken; the rate of autism diagnosis has ballooned over the past two decades, and some research suggests that it has been loosely applied.
The new study should put some of that skepticism to rest.
In 1987, “the pioneering autism researcher O. Ivar Lovaas reported that 47 percent of children with the diagnosis showed full recovery after undergoing a therapy he had devised,” reports the Times. “This therapy, a behavioral approach in which increments of learned skills garner small rewards, is the basis for the most effective approach used today; still, many were skeptical and questioned his definition of recovery.”
My niece is a behavioral therapist working with autistic children. Her clients are not high functioning.