Report Shows Optimal Outcomes for Kids with Autism

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Recently, The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry issued a report on 34 children who recovered from autism. These were kids who had been diagnosed before age five and no longer exhibited sufficient characteristics to keep the diagnostic label of ASD (autism spectrum disorder). Great news for parents, but diving deeper into the report, we see important themes rising to the top that parents, especially, need to know.

So let’s look at the report

  • Deborah Fein, Ph.D., at the University of Connecticut, led the study.
  • It included 34 children, teens and young adults (ages 8 to 21) diagnosed with autism in early life.
  • All were educated in inclusive classrooms without autism-related special education services.
  • The study also included 44 individuals with high-functioning autism and 34 typically developing peers, for comparison.

The authors of the report did not really say the children “recovered.” They said the children had “optimal outcomes.” To determine whether the teens were still on the autism spectrum, the researchers administered a battery of eight tests. Of these eight, three were completed by parents. The others were: clinical observation and scoring, an IQ test, a handedness test (left-handedness being more common in individuals with ASD) and two which evaluated facial recognition and language.

The report said that while these teens experienced optimal outcomes, they started out with “higher cognitive functioning and somewhat milder initial symptoms” than those who did not demonstrate this success. It is interesting that the tests did not include asking the teens about their view of their autism or their current state. Input that would certainly have rounded out the “optimal outcomes” assertion of the report.

Still, the report gives us scientific evidence that optimal outcomes are possible in ASD. “This is the first empirical study to seek out children with optimal outcomes and systematically test them in a variety of functioning domains, to see if they are truly indistinguishable from typically developing children,” says Sally Ozonoff, professor of psychiatry at the University of California Davis Medical Center and author of an editorial that accompanied the study. “There have been no other studies of this kind in the past.”

However, the report also encourages parents, teachers and clinicians to think about how we view autism. It is not just a disorder with a clinical diagnosis based on a cluster of behavior characteristics. It is more so a different way of being.

Recent research tells us that ASD is a neurobiological state. Nancy Minshew, Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology at the University of Pittsburgh, helps us understand autism as a pattern of brain circuitry. Through skilled intervention, change and improvement are probable. And improvement is not reserved solely for individuals with high cognitive functioning and mild symptoms. Intervention works for all our children with ASD. Every day brings new interactions with people and rich opportunities for learning skills.

Taken as a whole this new research defines for parents futures for their children that look bright. And as more information becomes available, these futures become more and more accessible to all families living with autism. Good news, indeed.

Author: Editorial Team

A select group of our board members who have something to say, but want to say it together. We also use this byline for those who wish to write anonymously.

2 Comments

  1. I have concerns about the tone of this article and its description of the research. While parents of children on the autistic spectrum can at times feel a sense of desperation for their children to improve symptomatically, it is an extremely rare event that an autistic spectrum disorder will be completely resolved. In fact, the research described in this article doesn’t even make that claim. Was it truly autism that was resolved, or something else that looks a lot like autism (e.g., exposure to heavy metals or undetected problems with hearing)? Parents need to understand that this research does not report on a new phenomenon. It does not document any new evidence showing how autistic children can become non-autistic. It does not give evidence that current childhood interventions are changing the course of autistic spectrum disorders in children. It only documents the fact that some children who were once diagnosed as meeting the criteria for a very mild autistic spectrum disorder will grow older and no longer meet those criteria, nor will they have any symptoms of autism. The fact that this happens is not new at all, nor do the authors claim that this is a new phenomenon. It is important to keep this in context. This is in no way groundbreaking research into the field of understanding the neural mechanisms of autism. These children might not have actually been autistic in the first place. As the authors of this study say, this phenomenon might be explained by something as simple as misdiagnosis at an early age. Numerous other factors might eventually explain how a very small group of apparently autistic children appear to become non-autistic as they grow older, but the only new data that this study brings to the discussion is documentation that this phenomenon exists, and that the children in this small group follow certain developmental patterns early on. I don’t mean to dash hopes or to rain on anyone’s parade, but this report must be kept in context. (I am a semi-retired neuroscientist, which is why I included my degree with my name, and I am on the autistic spectrum myself.)

    • It’s interesting that you express concerns with this post since we wanted to write about this research due to the mainstream coverage of it that described it as evidence of “recovery” from autism. Which we found to be a misrepresentation of the research. Perhaps our emphasis on that aspect made us overlook the other points generated from this research. I do think this study gives some important information to parents and educators – despite some of its limitations – such as its range of assessments, as well as the importance of inclusion in setting children up for optimal outcomes later in life.

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