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Some Children With Autism Recover, But How Many?

Some children with autism recover

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

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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.

Autism Society
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

Image: Morguefile



The production of methylphenidate (Ritalin) and the legal production of amphetamine in the form of Adderall and Dexedrine in the U.S. has soared since 1990. Since these drugs are considered to be potential drugs of abuse under the Controlled Substances Act, the DEA sets quotas regulating the amount of the drugs that may be produced each year to meet the demands for legitimate use, in order to ensure that there is not a surplus of production which could lead to drug diversion and illegal use. According to their data, the vast majority of prescriptions for amphetamine and methylphenidate are for children diagnosed with ADHD. Methylphenidate prescriptions rose dramatically in the early 1990s and have since leveled off at approximately 11 million per year. In comparison, amphetamine prescriptions, primarily Adderall, have increased dramatically recently, from 1.3 million in 1996 to nearly 6 million in 1999. The top five ranking states in 1999 for methylphenidate and amphetamine use were: New Hampshire (5,525 grams per 100,000 population); Vermont (5,005); Michigan (4,848); Iowa (4,638); and Delaware (4,439). The lowest ranking states for use of methylphenidate were California (1,748) and Hawaii (1,208). For amphetamine, the lowest ranking were New York (509) and Hawaii (305). (Frontline) It is now 14 years later and the figures will be a lot higher today. Probably on par with the increases in other psychiatric drug use in the USA.
Our charity, Treating Autism, has close to a thousand member families. Many of them have seen incredible changes in their children with ASD diagnoses when using appropriate interventions. Some of these children have completely recovered, and no one, regardless of their expertise in autism, would see any traces of their former diagnoses. This type of recovery is still fairly rare, although in a survey conducted of our members, some of whom are adults with ASD treating themselves, 95% of respondents said that interventions had proven beneficial, and 24% responded that biomedical treatments had been 'life-changing'. We know that the sort of 'optimal outcomes' discussed in Fein's research would be a lot more common if people with autism and their families were given the sorts of support--medical and otherwise--that they need, and if professionals were basing their actions on the fact that ASD is not necessarily a life-long diagnosis. Sadly, the vast majority of these families receive little to no appropriate help. We hope, for the sake of our children, many of whom are now adults, that this study and other current research will be taken seriously by the professionals who, by perpetuating the erroneous belief autism is by definition a lifelong disorder, do a disservice to those who might benefit from interventions aimed at addressing core symptoms of autism. Treating Autism Trustees