Some children diagnosed with autism early in childhood can grow out of it as they get older, psychologists say.
The discovery challenges the existing belief that autism is a permanent, lifelong condition with no cure and could now lead to a reassessment of that view.
A team at the University of Connecticut led by Dr Deborah Fein studied 34 children and young adults from eight to 21 who had been diagnosed with autism in early childhood but went on to function academically and socially just as well as 34 other children in classes at their school.
A combination of cognitive and observational tests and feedback from the children’s schools and parents showed the 34 children previously diagnosed as autistic were now indistinguishable from their classroom peers in terms of communication, language, face recognition, and social interaction.
For the purpose of comparison, a further 44 children of the same age, sex, and non-verbal IQ level with a diagnosis of “high-functioning” autism — and considered far less adversely affected by their condition — were also studied.
It became clear to psychologists that children in the optimal outcome group — the 34 who no longer had recognizable signs of autism — previously had milder social deficiencies than the high-functioning autism group in early childhood, although they did have other autism symptoms like repetitive behaviors, BBC News reports.
Findings from the National Institutes of Health funded study — 112 children in total have been published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
Although not conclusive, the study does suggest some children may simply outgrow autism.
But experts are being cautious.
Dr Judith Gould, Director of the National Autistic Society’s Lorna Wing Centre for Autism, said:
“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.
“With intensive therapy and support, it’s possible for a small sub group of high functioning individuals with autism to learn coping behaviours and strategies which would ‘mask’ their underlying condition and change their scoring in the diagnostic tests used to determine their condition in this research.
“This research acknowledges that a diagnosis of autism is not usually lost over time and it is important to recognise the support that people with autism need in order to live the lives of their choosing.”
Further tests on the children to see if there have been changes in brain function or whether they still have subtle social deficits are now underway. Also under review is the types of therapy any of the children received and their role in the transition.
If, and when, crucial determining factor(s) are found, it could help psychologists and scientists identify what helped those children who have made the transition from “autistic” to functioning and point the way to effective therapies, said The Independent.
Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said:
“Although the diagnosis of autism is not usually lost over time, the findings suggest that there is a very wide range of possible outcomes. Subsequent reports from this study should tell us more about the nature of autism and the role of therapy and other factors in the long term outcome for these children.”
The researchers note that the children who appeared to have grown out of autism still had a relatively mild form of the condition but also a slightly higher IQ than those with high functioning autism, which could mean that having a higher IQ may help in acquiring these “normal” traits.
The researchers say there are a number of possible explanations for their findings. It might be that some children really do outgrow their condition, or some may be able to compensate for autism-related difficulties.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) is currently revising its diagnostic manual — the DSM-5 — the reference source used by doctors that lists every psychiatric disorder and their symptoms.
Instead of using the current terms — autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder and pervasive developmental disorder — sufferers are now given an umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, said BBC News.
Dr Deborah Fein adds:
“All children with autistic spectrum disorders are capable of making progress with intensive therapy, but with our current state of knowledge most do not achieve the kind of optimal outcome that we are studying. 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.”