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Some children 'grow out of' autism

22nd January 2013

New research suggests children who are accurately diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder in their early years can sometimes grow out of it.

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Some children who were exhibiting classic autistic traits when young had no symptoms to speak of by the time they reached young adulthood.

They were likely to have shown huge improvements during behavioural therapy, but doctors are warning people not to expect such results in all children, and that there is currently no way to predict which children will respond well.

Writing in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, a research team led by Deborah Fein of the University of Connecticut at Storrs reported on the largest study to date of such cases.

Current statistics show that around one in 20 children diagnosed with autism will grow out of their symptoms later in childhood or adolescence.

However, this has generally been put down to misdiagnosis rather than any change in the children's condition. Some experts say the rapid rise in autism cases is due at least in part to over-diagnosis and loose application of the diagnostic criteria.

According to Sally Ozonoff of the MIND Institute at the University of California the study has big implications, because it made it possible to think of recovery from autism without seeming unscientific.

However, she stressed that recovery rates were still very low, and the findings showed the importance of early diagnosis and intervention.

Fein's team found 34 people aged between eight and 21 years old who had been diagnosed with an autism spectrum before the age of five, but who no longer showed any symptoms of autism. Most of them were fairly high-functioning.

They tested their communication and social skills, and interviewed their parents in some cases.

Debates over whether or not it is possible to recover from autism are highly charged, particularly as some treatments claiming to offer cures have been criticised by the autistic community as potentially abusive of autistic people's rights or harmful to their health.

The 34 subjects of Fein's study showed no difference in their performance in standard tests, when compared with a control group who had never had an autism diagnosis.

They also scored far higher than a control group with a diagnosis of high-functioning autism or Asperger's syndrome.

Fein, who co-authored the study with researcher from Queens University in Kingston, Ontario; Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; the Institute of Living in Hartford; and the Child Mind Institute in New York, said that the tests they employed were widely used in clinical practice.

She said that the children in the study had benefited greatly from behavioural therapy.

But she warned that parents with children on the spectrum should not expect such an outcome for their child, as only a minority appeared able to outgrow their diagnosis.

She said such outcomes were the result of years of hard work by parents and therapists.

Fein said her team now plans to carry out further studies in an attempt to identify behaviour patterns or biological markers contributing to the children's recovery.

According to Fred Volkmar, the director of the Child Study Center at the Yale University School of Medicine, recovery does not always mean a happy or stress-free life, however.

He said the children who are able to live independently as adults in spite of an autism diagnosis frequently suffer from depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

 

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