Evidence is growing for a notion long observed by doctors and parents: Some children with autism appear to grow out of their symptoms and recover fully.
The reasons aren’t entirely clear, but a recent study adds to the body of scientific work suggesting some autistic people get better. Led by a team from the University of Connecticut, researchers last week reported that they had identified 34 people who had all been diagnosed with autism by age 5 but years later were indistinguishable from peers on language, socialization and communication skills.
The individuals, ranging from 8 to 21 years old, had originally been diagnosed by autism specialists or other trained doctors.
The work “provides convincing evidence there is a group of people who certainly have all of the symptoms of an autism-spectrum disorder when they’re young, who look like they have no symptoms later,” said Thomas Insel, head of the National Institute of Mental Health, which funded the work. Dr. Insel wasn’t involved in the study.
For years, clinicians and parents have described patients and loved ones whose autism symptoms seem to disappear completely. But these individuals haven’t been closely studied, making it hard to determine whether they had autism in the first place or were misdiagnosed. The possibility of recovery is spurring interest in figuring out who might get better and why.
Deborah Fein, a professor of psychology and pediatrics at the University of Connecticut, and her colleagues decided several years ago to examine how children with autism fare over time, with particular interest in those who achieved what they called an “optimal outcome.” In their first study on the topic, published in 2007, they screened children at age 2 and again at 4. Of the 73 toddlers who were initially diagnosed with an autism-spectrum disorder, 13 of them, or 18%, no longer qualified for the diagnosis at age 4.
Autism diagnoses have climbed sharply for years, with 1 in 88 U.S. children now thought to have an autism-related disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Though experts encourage diagnosing children as early as possible, with some saying that 1-year-olds can be identified as being at high risk for autism-related conditions, they caution that early diagnosis is challenging and some children may be mislabeled.
In the latest work, published Jan. 15 in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Dr. Fein said the researchers sought to exclude children in whom the original diagnosis was questionable. But they didn’t examine in this study why they seemed to get better.
“It’s now apparent that some have a very good prognosis,” said the NIMH’s Dr. Insel. “The problem is we don’t know how to identify that group.”
Experts speculate that a combination of early, high-quality therapy and biological%2