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Is recovery from autism possible?

By Salynn Boyles
WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks
autistic child

15th January 2013 - The idea that some children recover from autism remains controversial but new research lends possible credibility to the notion.

A small study by the US National Institutes of Health found children, teens and young adults who had received a diagnosis of autism early in life but moved off the autism spectrum as they grew older.

Dr Judith Gould, Director of the National Autistic Society’s Lorna Wing Centre for Autism, in Bromley, Kent told BootsWebMD: "Autism is a lifelong disability affecting the way that people communicate and interact with others.

"This study is looking at a small sample of high functioning people with autism and we would urge people not to jump to conclusions about the nature and complexity of autism, as well its longevity."

Recovered or misdiagnosed?

The study was led by autism researcher Dr Deborah Fein and colleagues at the University of Connecticut in the US. In earlier work she had concluded that as many as one in five children on the autism spectrum can recover to the point where they are no longer considered autistic.

However, sceptics claimed that the children the researchers identified as "optimal outcome" -- a phrase Fein prefers to "recovered" -- were simply misdiagnosed or had a very mild form of autism early in life.

To address this criticism, Dr Fein had an expert in the diagnosis of autism review the early diagnostic reports of 34 people with a prior diagnosis of autism, along with those of 44 people with high-functioning autism, and 34 people who had never received a diagnosis of autism.

The autism diagnosis was deleted from the reports along with any information that would give the diagnosis away and the reviewer had no knowledge of the current status of the children and young adults in the study.

She says the reviewer identified all 34 of the optimal-outcome participants as originally autistic, based on their early diagnostic records, and all 34 of the typically developing participants as non-autistic.

Compared to those in the high-functioning autism group, those in the optimal-outcome group did show fewer social deficits in early childhood, but they were just as likely to have problems communicating and just as likely to engage in repetitive behaviours - two characteristic early signs of autism.

When the researchers examined the current status of the optimal-outcome participants, who ranged from eight to 21 years old, they exhibited none of the typical signs of autism, including problems with language, face recognition, communication and social interaction.

The study appears in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Behavioural therapy may make the difference

Dr Fein is a big proponent of very early intensive behavioural therapy. She says children who recover are more likely than those who don’t to have had a behavioural therapy known as applied behavioural analysis.

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