Study: Some autistic kids recover

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.


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  1. Crimson Wife says:

    This is the hope that everyone who has evaluated and/or worked with my autistic child has for her. With early intervention, the hope is that by the time she’s an adult she will present as “quirky” rather than obviously autistic. There are no guarantees, but it’s what we all hope for her.

  2. So, an “optimal” outcome is one in which someone is not obviously autistic any more. Way to teach self-hate to autistic people. By this logic, the best thing for them to be is precisely NOT what they are. They should all work really, really hard so they can “pass” for neurotypicals.

    Thanks for that. Of course no one wants to focus on the strengths that are often associated with autism. Why can’t we accept that it is a disability but also a strength? It doesn’t always have to be either/or.

  3. George Larson says:

    Happy-Elf Homeschool

    What are the strengths of autism you are referring to?

    • Crimson Wife says:

      Many individuals with autism have strong visio-spatial skills. My autistic DD is very good at jigsaw puzzles and building with Legos. Of course we want to continue to build on her strengths. We just also want her to also be able to function in society, live independently, hold down a job, and hopefully get & stay married some day. And to do that, she will need to overcome the language and social difficulties caused by her autism. We love her very much and want to see her rise above her disability. Autism isn’t who she is, it’s a chronic biomedical condition like having diabetes or asthma.

    • One example: my homeschooled fifth-grader is very good at chess and is several years ahead in mathematics (he will complete high school geometry in the next few weeks). He is also quite bright and not very easily manipulated by emotional argument. I don’t object to discussing the difficulties autism brings, but balance demands that the positives are acknowledged as well.

  4. lightly seasoned says:

    My kid had an autism diagnoses that has disappeared. We did all kinds of therapies very early, and I’m sure that helped, but I also suspect the issue is more along the lines of an auditory processing disorder. I think the move toward calling it a spectrum is probably a positive one, as it catches more kids early, but the goal has to be providing helpful support and therapies, not just a label. I don’t see it as “self-hate” to work on language issues and sensitivities, for example, just as I am not self-hating when I work on things I don’t do well — the idea is to make life a little easier. In my experience working with dozens and dozens of higher functioning autistic kids, they do “outgrow” some of the behaviors as they get older, just as all kids mature and cope better with who they are in the world they are given.