Small study suggests children can 'grow out' of autism

Researcher: Behavioral therapy is key to improvement

Some children who have been accurately diagnosed early in childhood with autistic disorders are able to completely overcome their symptoms as they grow older, according to a study in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Some experts say the findings of the study—reported to be the largest of its kind to date of such unusual cases—could change how scientists and parents perceive and discuss autism. According to the New York Times, researchers have long argued that only between 1% and 20% of diagnosed cases of autism no longer qualify as one a few years or more later.

For the study, published on Wednesday, a team of Canadian and U.S. researchers followed 34 people—between ages eight and 21—who had been diagnosed with autism before age 5 and no longer exhibited any symptoms. The participants had been diagnosed with high-functioning autism or Asperger's syndrome. The researchers conducted a series of cognitive tests and interviews with parents to measure current social and communication skills.

The researchers compared the group of recovered participants with a second group of 34 matched subjects who had never received a diagnosis and found no differences on a metric of standardized, widely used measures. However, the recovered group scored significantly higher on the measures for social and communication skills, compared with a third group of 44 subjects who had been diagnosed with high-functioning autism.

The research team cautioned that only a small portion of individuals on the "autism spectrum" are able to overcome their symptoms with behavioral therapy, perhaps as a result of biological factors, the Times reports.

Lead study author Deborah Fein, of the University of Connecticut at Storrs, noted that behavioral therapy was a key factor in the improvements seen in the study participants. She said, "These people did not just grow out of their autism," adding, "I have been treating children for 40 years and never seen improvements like this unless therapists and parents put in years of work" (Carey, New York Times, 1/16; Medical News Today, 1/17).


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