Thursday, January 17th, 2013
There is a long history of reports of small numbers of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) experiencing recovery – meaning they no longer met diagnostic criteria. While such claims have generated controversy over the years, a new study provides the best scientific evidence documenting recovery from ASD in a small number of individuals.
A team of researchers (led by Dr. Deborah Fein at the University of Connecticut) identified 34 individuals with suspected recovery who had a clear documented history of ASD, but no longer met diagnostic criteria for it. By comparing this group to two other groups – a high-functioning ASD group (44 individuals), and a typical development group without ASD (34 individuals) – the study reported these two key findings:
- The 34 potential recovery cases not only no longer met criteria for ASD, but in fact lost all symptoms of ASD
- Their social and communicative functioning was within the nonautistic range (and as a group similar to the typical development group)
The study authors suggested the phrase “optimal outcome” for these individuals to convey the idea that their overall functioning across multiple domains was in the normative range. There was a wide age range in the sample – from 8 to 21 years – and the conclusion was that some children with a diagnosis and history of autism may in fact go on to experience an optimal outcome later in development.
More reports will come in the future from this research group on this sample. In particular, they will be analyzing collected data on intervention history to see if there were commonalities in those who experienced an optimal outcome. They will also be looking at psychiatric data to examine the possibility that some with optimal outcome experience anxiety, depression, and impulsivity. Based on the data published to date, the group with optimal outcomes were reported to have milder symptoms of ASD when they were younger (but only in terms of social symptoms, not communicative or repetitive behavior symptoms), and IQ scores in the high average range. But more work will be done to see if there are clear factors which are predictive of optimal outcome.
While every child with ASD will not have an optimal outcome as defined in this study, the larger message is that the developmental trajectory of kids with ASD can be modified. We’ve seen over the past year stories about how as many as 10% of youth with ASD may “bloom” by age 8 and lose many of the debilitating symptoms. A recent study reported “a small breakthrough” for some kids with ASD (achieved with the Early Start Denver Model intervention) that resulted in “typical” brain activity activated by viewing faces. The bottom line is that whether small or big steps are made via intervention, the parents and intervention specialists who put in extraordinary time and effort will improve the lives of kids with ASD. The two key considerations continue to be early diagnosis, and early intervention. To that end, it’s critical that parents know the early signs of ASD:
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