Some Autistic Kids Outgrow Their Diagnosis
January 16, 2013

Some Autistic Kids Drop Their Diagnosis As They Age: Study

Connie K. Ho for — Your Universe Online

A recent study found that a small group of children who were originally diagnosed with autism were able shed their autism-related symptoms — and their diagnosis — as they matured.

Supported by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and conducted by the University of Connecticut-Storrs, the study discovered the change by closely following a prior diagnosis of a small group of school-age children and young adults who no longer displayed symptoms of the autism spectrum disorder (ASD). According to the autism advocacy organization Autism Speaks, ASD is a complex disorder of brain development that relates to problems with social interactions and repetitive behaviors as well as difficulties with verbal and nonverbal communication. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that approximately one in every 88 children in the U.S. is considered to have ASD.

In particular, the scientists believe that the study is the first to observe the changes that occur in autistic children´s mental health statuses. Even though the young children were once diagnosed with ASD, they slowly transitioned out of it and were later found to be at the same level of mental development as other typically developing kids. The team of scientists continues to evaluate data on brain function changes in the children along with any other information on the interventions that children received and how that may have helped them transition out of their ASD diagnosis.

“Although the diagnosis of autism is not usually lost over time, the findings suggest that there is a very wide range of possible outcomes," explained Dr. Thomas R. Insel, the NIMH Director. "For an individual child, the outcome may be knowable only with time and after some years of intervention. 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 project included 34 ℠optimal outcome´ children who had previously received autism diagnoses when they were younger but were now functioning on par with their peers. The children were compared with 44 other children who showed symptoms of high-functioning autism and another 34 typically developing peers. The participants were between 8 and 21 years old, and matched by age, sex and nonverbal IQ.

The study was carried out in a two-step process: First, early diagnostic reports by expert clinicians in autism were reviewed by scientists, and then the diagnostic experts examined reports in which the early diagnosis had been eliminated. The outcome of the study suggests that while participants in the optimal outcome group displayed milder social difficulties than those who were in the high functioning autism group, they had other symptoms associated with communication and repetitive behaviors that were considered to be as significant as those in the high functioning autism group.

In addition, the scientists evaluated the status of the children using observational tests, parent questionnaires and standard cognitive exams. They found that optimal outcome children had often been placed in regular education classrooms in which there were no special education services focused on autistic children. These children displayed no difficulties with communication, facial recognition, language or social interaction.

Even with these findings, the study still cannot offer an accurate picture of just how many children with ASD can expect to later have their diagnoses lifted. The researchers believe that further studies will help show whether IQ played a role in the transition. Information collected on the participants, including data on structural and functional brain imaging, psychiatric outcomes, and therapies given, will also help determine the reasons for the transformation.

"All children with ASD 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," concluded Deborah Fein, the study´s lead researcher and Professor of Psychology at the University of Connecticut-Storrs. "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."