One-in-ten Autistic Kids 'Bloom' Out Of Severe Symptoms
April 3, 2012

One-in-ten Autistic Kids ‘Bloom’ Out Of Severe Symptoms

Roughly one-in-ten children diagnosed with severe forms of autism will shed many symptoms of the developmental disability by the time they reach their eight birthday, according to a new study by researchers at Columbia University.

Although many children with autism see their social and communication skills improve over time with therapy, the "bloomers" identified in the study typically started out with lots of communication and social problems, but made rapid gains during their elementary-school years.

"There's a wide variety of children with different kinds of symptoms that fall within this (autism) umbrella," said the study´s lead author, Christine Fountain, an autism researcher at Columbia University in New York.

"We were interested in how these symptoms play out over time,” she said in an interview with Reuters.

The findings follow the release of new data three days ago from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which found that one in 88 U.S. children now has an autism spectrum disorder, which also includes conditions such as Asperger's syndrome.

In the current study, the researchers used data from California centers responsible for testing and treating children with autism.

Fountain and her colleagues tracked kids aged two to 14 years old that had received four or more evaluations.  During those approximately annual evaluations, the kids' symptoms of social and communication problems, as well as their repetitive behaviors, were recorded.

“This research differs from other longitudinal work on autism outcomes by using data for a large sample with far more frequent follow-ups over a wide swath of childhood and early adolescence,” the researchers said.

The findings revealed that most children with autism improved over time, particularly when it came to social and communication scores, although some improved much faster than others.

White children, and those whose parents were more educated, tended to have less severe autism symptoms during treatment.  These children were also more likely to be among the 10 percent considered ℠bloomers´, whose symptoms improved significantly between the ages of three to 12 years old.

However, for the majority of children participating in the study — whether bloomers or not -- repetitive behaviors did not tend to improve or worsen much over time, unlike social and communication skills.

Moreover, kids with other intellectual disabilities in addition to autism were not likely to show significant improvements, the researchers found.

The discrepancies in improvement based on the race and educational level of parents are likely a function of access to quality treatment, said Johnny Matson, who studies autism spectrum disorders and intellectual disabilities at Louisiana State University.

Fortunately, “those gaps are narrowing very rapidly," he told Reuters.

Matson was somewhat skeptical about the specific "symptom trajectories" the researchers used to separate children, saying many autism assessments are not conducted properly, making interpreting changes over time difficult.

"I think all (kids with autism) are going to improve, it's just a matter of how much they're going to improve," said Matson, who was not involved in the current study.

"I don't believe you can cure autism. Having said that, you can make it a lot better," particularly if kids with autism continue to receive therapy as they grow older.

Dr. Andrew Zimmerman from the Lurie Center for Autism at Massachusetts General Hospital for Kids said the study´s findings are consistent with his experience.

"We deal with this problem every day, and we sense that there are different patterns or trajectories... in the kids as they develop," he told Reuters.

"For some kids, you work very hard and you do a lot of therapy and nothing happens or very little, and then some kids seem to do really well.”

Fountain and Matson said that parents of children with autism should be persistent in making sure their kids receive quality therapy.

"There is a bit of a hopeful note in that we did find that most children get at least a little better over time," Fountain said.

"There's a lot of hope here," said Zimmerman.

The study was published online April 2, 2012 in the journal Pediatrics, and can be viewed here.