Study Claims That Some Autistic Kids Can "Recover"
> 5/25/2009 4:46:18 PM

Is it true that some kids can “recover from autism?” The study behind that provocative headline will certainly draw attention from concerned quarters. It will probably not change the public perceptions of or approaches to autistic spectrum disorders, but it may be a precursor to at least one future branch of related research. Some third party experts like Geraldine Dawson of the advocacy group Autism Speaks have hailed it as “a breakthrough.”

This supposed a-ha moment concerns conclusions drawn from a small study sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health: according to the study, some autistic children who've undergone years of treatment may no longer meet the clinical standards for diagnosis. That is to say that kids who are confirmed to be mildly autistic at a young age could actually outgrow or at least learn to minimize the disorder’s most obvious behavioral symptoms. According to the study’s lead researchers, this process may even be complete before the age of 10. Estimates concerning the percentage of autistic children who could successfully recover from the disorder vary, but their median sits around 10%.

At the root of this movement lies the fact that autism and related disorders occur along a spectrum of symptomatic severity and that, with proper treatment over time, a child could conceivably “fall off” this spectrum at a certain point. Does the gradual process of minimizing symptoms to such a degree that a subject no longer merits a clinical diagnosis amount to “curing” that subject? Whatever the eventual conclusion on that debate, individuals familiar with related treatment programs will not find anything particularly revolutionary in this one except for the fact that it requires an abnormal degree of diligence: many of the children involved in the study spent 30-40 hours with an outside therapist each week, and successful subjects began the plan almost immediately after their initial diagnoses. The purpose of the plans is to bring therapists and parents together in working around the clock to curb the eclectic behavioral patterns and stubborn obsessions so often exhibited by autistic children.

While several professional autism experts who were asked to comment on this study also reported witnessing examples of “recovered” children in their own practices and studies, some debate the possibility of a professionally directed recovery, arguing that certain subjects are simply far more likely to outgrow their symptoms with or without clinical help. They point out the fact that many of those whose behavior improved were abnormally intelligent kids who had initially been diagnosed with milder forms of autism and that most of them still experienced one or more behavioral disorders at the study’s end. Given examples include OCD, ADHD and various physical tics or phobias.

This study could raise doubts about whether autism is a lifelong “sentence” and whether affected subjects and their parents should accept the behavioral quirks and social stigmas that come with it. As with all breaking research, the parents of autistic children should temper their expectations before looking into this study. Its cautious conclusions may well portend a significant change occurring within academic research circles, but they have little bearing on widespread treatment practices – for now. At any rate, we welcome all research that serves to highlight autism’s many complexities and encourage a greater degree of empathy from parents, professionals and peers.

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