Although rare, new research confirms that there are some children who just seem to “outgrow” autism and shed all remnants of the disorder. Cases like these have long perplexed researchers.
What distinguishes them from people for whom autism is a lifelong condition? And what distinguishes them from those with typical early childhood development?
In a new study, Deborah Fein, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Connecticut, and her team set out to answer these questions. They recruited 34 children and young adults (ages 8 to 21) who had been diagnosed with autism early in life but now appear to be functioning normally.
Only participants who had been diagnosed by autism experts were included in the study in an attempt to avoid cases in which there had been a misdiagnosis.
Furthermore, records documented the one-time presence of the disorder’s hallmark symptoms: problems with socialization and communication, and repetitive behaviors or obsessive interests.
For comparison purposes, the researchers assembled two other groups: 34 people whose development was normal and 44 who have autism without an intellectual disability.
The researchers wanted to know whether those who lost the diagnosis still had subtle remnants of the disorder. For the most part, the answer was no. In socialization and communication, the subjects performed as well as the typically developing children.
Three, however, scored below average in facial recognition — a common difficulty in autism.
The researchers also looked back at early developmental history and compared the children who seemed to grow out of their autism with those who did not. In the beginning, both groups had equally severe problems with communication and repetitive behaviors.
However, those who shed the diagnosis started out with less severe social problems.
The study does not address how many children with an autism diagnosis have the capacity to outgrow it.
Cases of autism have skyrocketed over the last two decades, partly because of an expanded definition of the disorder and more aggressive attempts to identify it. The diagnosis describes a very large range of children — from the mentally retarded and self-injurious to the preternaturally bright but socially awkward.
Until there is a definitive biomarker for the disorder, the question will remain whether children who outgrow autism ever really had it — or if autism is even a single disorder.
The study is published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
Source: University of Connecticut