Children can 'grow out of' autism, psychologists say, challenging the established view that it is a permanent, incurable condition

Identifying transition from 'autistic' to functioning like their peers could lead to effective therapies

Some children diagnosed with autism at a young age later grow out of it, psychologists say, in a discovery that challenges the established view of condition as a permanent disorder of social functioning with no cure.

If the finding is confirmed, identifying what helped those children who have made the transition from “autistic” to functioning like their peers could point the way to effective therapies, they say.

An estimated 600,000 people in Britain are affected by autistic spectrum disorders, which alter their capacity to interact with others. Sufferers have difficulty reading social situations and responding appropriately and may lead lonely and isolated lives as a result.

The condition ranges from the mild to the severe, but half of those affected are undiagnosed. Autism, it has long been thought, is a lifelong and incurable condition, although sufferers can be helped to learn to cope with the condition.

Now researchers funded by the US National Institutes of Health say that view may have to be reassessed. The researchers identified 34 children and young adults ranging in age from eight to 21 who were considered to be on a par with their peers but had earlier been diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder.

In each case, the researchers carefully documented the earlier diagnosis and got experts to cross check it. They then compared the children today with a second group, matched for age and sex, who had been diagnosed with “high functioning“ autism – showing expert skills such as in drawing or mathematics – and with a third group of children whose development was unaffected. 

Thomas Insel, director of NIMH, said: “Although the diagnosis of autism is not usually lost over time, the findings suggest that there is a very wide range of possible outcomes. Subsequent reports from this study should tell us more about the nature of autism and the role of therapy and other factors in the long term outcome for these children.”

The children are now being studied further to see if there have been changes in brain function or whether they still have subtle social deficits. The  types of therapy they received are also being reviewed and their role in the transition assessed.

The researchers note that the children who appeared to have grown out of autism had a relatively mild form of the condition and a slightly higher IQ than those with high functioning autism. As people with autistic spectrum disorders have to learn social behaviour that comes instinctively to others, such as looking people in the eye when talking to them, it is possible that having a higher IQ may help in acquiring these “normal” traits.

Deborah Fein of the University of Connecticut, who led the study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, said: “All children with autistic spectrum disorders are capable of making progress with intensive therapy, but with our current state of knowledge most do not achieve the kind of optimal outcome that we are studying. Our hope is that further research will help us better understand the mechanisms of change so that each child can have the best possible life.”

Dr Judith Gould, Director of the National Autistic Society’s Lorna Wing Centre for Autism, said:

“This study is looking at a small sample of high functioning people with autism and we would urge people not to jump to conclusions about the nature and complexity of autism, as well its longevity.

“With intensive therapy and support, it’s possible for a small sub group of high functioning individuals with autism to learn coping behaviours and strategies which would ‘mask’ their underlying condition and change their scoring in the diagnostic tests used to determine their condition in this research.

“This research acknowledges that a diagnosis of autism is not usually lost over time and it is important to recognise the support that people with autism need in order to live the lives of their choosing.

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