It sounds impossible, doesn’t it? A child recovering from autism to the point that there are no present symptoms? However, new study, which followed a total of 85 children from the time they were diagnosed as toddlers, on into their late teens, suggests that it just might be possible.
Published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, the study found that about 9 percent of the entire group improved to the point that they no longer fit the diagnostic criteria for autism. Another 28 percent retained the autism spectrum disorder symptoms (impaired social functioning, for example), but they still showed improvement in other areas, particularly in cognitive and academic functioning.
“This rate of improvement is much higher than has been reported before, and that fact offers some very good news,” study senior investigator, Dr. Catherine Lord, founding director of the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain, a collaboration between Weill Cornell Medical College, New York Presbyterian Hospital, and Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, told Weill Cornell News.
While some might suggest that the children were simply misdiagnosed during their toddler years, Dr. Lord says this isn’t possible because, at the time of their diagnosis, these children displayed tell-tale symptoms, such as repetitive behaviors and social dysfunction.
It should also be noted that the majority of the mostly male study population never outgrew their symptoms over the course of the 17 year study. In fact, researchers accurately predicted about 85 of the children with poorer outcomes when the diagnosis were first made. The most powerful predictor of poorer incomes at age 2 seemed to be an IQ test score of less than 70, the researchers said.
“But there is good news in this group, as well: Even children who clearly have significant language disability can become more independent and can continue to make progress in their teens as young adults if people give them the opportunity to do so,” Lord who is also the DeWitt Wallace Senior Scholar and a professor of psychology in psychiatry and in pediatrics at Weill Cornell, said.
In fact, while the study was not staged to measure interventions, Lord said that the type of help received seemed to make a big difference in how much each child was able to improve over the course of the study. For example, children that “outgrew” their diagnosis were more likely to have received interventions designed to reduce social dysfunctions. These children had the greatest reduction in repetitive behaviors between the ages of 2 and 3. Their IQs also increased drastically during that year.
Dr. Lord says that this suggests the “possibility of greater initial flexibility in brain development and receptivity to environmental stimuli in some children diagnosed with ASD, which then potentially accelerates cognitive growth and behavioral improvements over time.”
But Lord says that this group of parents were very special, and she gives a word of caution to parents that may consider waiting to see if their child “grows out of” their symptoms on their own.
“These families included in this research are quite special, because they knew pretty early that something was wrong with their children, and they sought help and were willing to get involved,” she said. “It is not a good idea for parents of very young children to wait and hope that the signs of autism will just go away. Doing something for the child – getting a youngster involved in activities, starting treatment, beginning preschool or other social activities – seemed to be related to better outcomes in the children that we have followed.”
In addition to finding the improvements in this group of children, the study could help to provide long-term road maps, of sorts, for tracking young children diagnosed with ASD. It could also help in improving outcomes for children diagnosed with ASD in the future.
“We can use our findings to monitor the trajectories of these children – how they are changing in cognitive skills, language, social skills, repetitive behavior, and so on,” Lord said. “Then we can build on the success we see in each child, and perhaps suggest interventions for behaviors that have not improved. For example, we noted that children who did best were the kids that did not seem to be hyperactive – so this may be an area that can be targeted.”
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