Parents of children with autism often wonder if their sons or daughters will ever recover from this life-altering developmental disorder. A study recently appearing in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry reports that some children with autism spectrum disorder do lose the symptoms as they get older, but the question is, how many children can hope to achieve this goal?
Autism is a significant health issue
It seems that every time new figures for the prevalence of autism are announced, they are more daunting. In March 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 1 in every 88 children in the United States, and 1 in 54 boys, has autism. These figures are up 78 percent since 2002, when the figures were 1 in every 150 children.
One arm of research into the causes, prevention, and treatment of autism involves if, how, and when children can recover from autism symptoms and reach a developmental level that is on par with other children their age. The first of a series of reports on this line of study has just been released.
At the University of Connecticut, Storrs, 34 children who had been diagnosed with autism early in life but who now appear to be free of their symptoms were matched with 44 children with high-functioning autism and 34 typically developing peers. The age range of all the participants was 8 to 21 years.
Since one of the first concerns would be that the original diagnosis was inaccurate, even though prior studies had explored this possibility, the investigators conducted a two-step analysis. First the original diagnostic reports were reviewed by autism experts, then an expert (who was blind to the child’s current status) reviewed reports from which the earlier autism diagnosis has been deleted.
Investigators then evaluated the children’s current status by questioning the parents and using a variety of tests. Overall, here’s what the authors found:
- Children who had been diagnosed with autism but who now appeared to have no symptoms had milder social deficiencies than the children with high-functioning autism in early childhood. However, their communication skills and repetitive behaviors were as severe as those seen in the latter group.
- The children who seem to have recovered from autism now attend regular classrooms without any special education. They have no signs of deficits associated with autism, such as difficulties with communication, social skills, face recognition, and language.
- Verbal IQs of children who seemed to beat autism were slightly higher than those who had high-functioning autism
The question every parent of an autistic child wants answered is, Can my child recover from autism? For now, the investigators in this study were unable to determine what percentage of children with autism may go on to enter mainstream society without symptoms of the disorder.
However, the researchers feel optimistic. Deborah Fein, PhD, who led the study, explained that “Our hope is that further research will help us better understand the mechanisms of change so that each child can have the best possible life.”
Part of that research will involve a comprehensive analysis of the data collected thus far, which includes psychiatric reports, brain imaging data, and information on therapies the children participated in, and a look at the possible role of IQ. In the meantime, however, what can parents of children with autism do?
What parents can do
While there are no simple answers for parents who have an autistic child, the one thing experts seem to agree on is that treatment is critical. When to start that treatment, and what it should include, vary considerably.
As the Autism Society explains on its website, “just as there is no one symptom or behavior that identifies individuals with ASD, there is no single treatment that will be effective for all people on the spectrum.” In fact, there are considerable treatment options, ranging from various educational programs to drugs, behavioral therapies, sensory and communication interventions, dietary changes, and the use of supplements such as folic acid and the antioxidant NAC.
It is recommended that parents interact and share their thoughts, questions, and ideas with other mothers and fathers of autistic children in support groups (in person and online), explore treatment options in their community, keep up with the latest research, consider alternative diets and probiotics, and contact organizations such as the Autism Society and Autism Speaks for help. Some children with autism may recover, or at least their quality of life can be improved.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Fein D et al. Optimal outcome in individuals with a history of autism Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 2013. Doi:10.111/jcpp.12037