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A groundbreaking new study, published by the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, suggests that a minority of children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will eventually recover completely. The researchers recommend that parents of children with an ASD should not focus their attention on the false hope that their child may be part of this minority, but the research is still significant — especially since it’s the first study of its kind to address the question of possible complete recovery. This study was not very widespread, which is a downside. The researchers looked at 34 individuals with an ASD diagnosis made before the age of 5 years-old, who later lost all of their symptoms. These individuals were between the age of 8 to 21 years and had been originally diagnosed by a physician or psychologist specializing in autism. The study also looked at 44 high-functioning individuals with a current ASD diagnosis and 34 typically developing peers (TD). When the researchers compared the individuals who lost their symptoms to the TD individuals, they found few differences, meaning the individuals who were once diagnosed with ASD but lost their symptoms had adaptive behaviors that were virtually identical to their peers who had never been diagnosed with ASD. The researchers note that their results: “Clearly demonstrate the existence of a group of individuals with an early history of ASD, who no longer meet criteria for any ASD, and whose communication and socialization skills, are on par with that of TD individuals matched for IQ, sex, and age.”

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Deborah Fein of the University of Connecticut at Storrs, the lead researcher on this study, points out that the individuals who overcame their autism diagnosis had a lot of support. Fein tells the New York Times, “These people did not just grow out of their autism. I have been treating children for 40 years and never seen improvements like this unless therapists and parents put in years of work.” The researchers make it clear that while this study could mean amazing things for people with ASD, there is a lot more research to be done and some important things to consider, such as:

  • The individuals chosen for this study were in the higher-than-average range of the autism spectrum early in their development.
  • All participants had mean IQs in the high average range. The researchers note, “It is possible that above average cognition allowed individuals with ASD to compensate for some of their deficits.” OR  “It is also possible that families with higher IQ children volunteered for the study at higher rates.”
  • The study cannot address how many children with ASD have the capacity to achieve these same outcomes or even if there’s a way to ensure a child loses his ASD symptoms.
The importance of early support for individuals with ASD was a focus of this study, yet that brings up a problem. For one thing, research released last year shows that only half of all kids with autism are diagnosed before school age. Secondly, as you may have heard, when the new DSM-5 is published in May, the autism diagnosis is going to look very different than it has in the past — which some experts fear will limit treatment of certain diagnoses like autism. That said, if you’re worried your child may have ASD, talk to your doctor and read this fact sheet, because as this research shows, early treatment and support are more likely to result in your child being one of the small minority who may overcome all of their symptoms.

+ Optimal outcome in individuals with a history of autism

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