A fascinating study that will surely be debated and undoubtedly provoke more study suggests that a minority of toddlers diagnosed with autism-spectrum disorder no longer qualify as autistic years after diagnosis. The investigator, Dr. Deborah Fein estimates that 10%-20% of children can outgrow or otherwise “recover” from autism; the study uses the phrase “achieve(s) optimal outcomes.”
Dr. Fein led a team from the University of Connecticut and reported last week in the Journal of Child Psychology that they had identified 34 people who had all been diagnosed with autism by age 5 but years later were indistinguishable from their peers.
The findings reinforce observations made by parents and clinicians that symptoms of autism can disappear over time in some individuals. However, it does not appear that doctors know how to identify the group that experiences “recovery”.
The full abstract from the Journal of Child Psychology (courtesy of PubMed) is re-printed here:
J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2013 Feb;54(2):195-205. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.12037.
Optimal outcome in individuals with a history of autism.
Department of Psychology, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, USA; Department of Psychology, Queens University, Kingston, ON, Canada; Center for Autism Research, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, PA, USA; Institute of Living, Hartford Hospital, Hartford, CT, USA; Child Mind Institute, NY, USA; Department of Pediatrics, University of Connecticut, Farmington, CT, USA.
Background: Although autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are generally considered lifelong disabilities, literature suggests that a minority of individuals with an ASD will lose the diagnosis. However, the existence of this phenomenon, as well as its frequency and interpretation, is still controversial: were they misdiagnosed initially, is this a rare event, did they lose the full diagnosis, but still suffer significant social and communication impairments or did they lose all symptoms of ASD and function socially within the normal range?
Methods: The present study documents a group of these optimal outcome individuals (OO group, n = 34) by comparing their functioning on standardized measures to age, sex, and nonverbal IQ matched individuals with high-functioning autism (HFA group, n = 44) or typical development (TD group, n = 34). For this study, ‘optimal outcome’ requires losing all symptoms of ASD in addition to the diagnosis, and functioning within the nonautistic range of social interaction and communication. Domains explored include language, face recognition, socialization, communication, and autism symptoms. Results: Optimal outcome and TD groups’ mean scores did not differ on socialization, communication, face recognition, or most language subscales, although three OO individuals showed below-average scores on face recognition. Early in their development, the OO group displayed milder symptoms than the HFA group in the social domain, but had equally severe difficulties with communication and repetitive behaviors. Conclusions: Although possible deficits in more subtle aspects of social interaction or cognition are not ruled out, the results substantiate the possibility of OO from autism spectrum disorders and demonstrate an overall level of functioning within normal limits for this group.
© 2013 The Authors. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry © 2013 Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health.
Please see these other links that reported on the study:
“Who Can Outgrow Autism” by Shirley S. Wang, Wall Street Journal
“New Study Suggests Autism Can Be ‘Outgrown'” by Mia Szalavitz, Time Magazine http://healthland.time.com/2013/01/22/new-study-suggests-autism-can-be-outgrown/