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Study Indicates Some Autistic Children May Recover

May 9, 2009

A small research study published recently indicates that more than 10 percent of children born with autism are able to overcome the disorder by the age of 9, usually through of years of intensive behavioral therapy.

A number of critics have voiced skepticism about the study, but Deborah Fein of the University of Connecticut is convinced that the phenomenon of recovery represents a real breakthrough in the field of autism research.

At a conference on autism held in Chicago last week, Fein presented the results of her research in which she had examined 58 children of which 20 had been diagnosed as autistic at a young age but were no longer considered to have the disorder several years later.

Among her subjects was a young boy name Leo Lytel who, as a young child, had demonstrated numerous telltale signs of autism such as avoiding eye contact, incessantly echoing words spoken to him and spinning around in circles for long periods of time.  According to Lytel’s mother, the boy is now a well-developed, social third-grader whose teachers refer to him as a class leader.

Autism specialist Geraldine Dawson of the advocacy group Autism Speaks has called the study a breakthrough.

Dawson explained that while a number of autism experts have observed children who seemed to recover, no project has ever before documented so precisely and thoroughly the changes and progress of such patients.

“We’re at a very early stage in terms of understanding” the phenomenon of autism-recovery, said Dawson.

Previous studies have indicated that somewhere between 3 and 25 percent of autistic children recover by adolescence.  According to Fein, her study has narrowed the range to between 10 and 20 percent.

Nevertheless, even with years of intensive therapy, the vast majority of autistic kids do not recover.  Fein said that recovery from autism is “not a realistic expectation” that most parents should have for their autistic children.

Skeptics have argued that false diagnoses of autism early in the children’s lives probably explain what they believe to be the mere appearance of recovery from the disease.

Fein, however, has firmly countered this argument by offering the results of rigorous tests performed on the children at a young age which show that, according to all modern criteria, the children were in fact autistic.

The children “really were” autistic, but now they’re “really not,” says Fein.

Another autism expert, Catherine Lord of the University of Michigan, says she has also observed autistic children who recovered after years of intensive therapy.  She added, however, “I don’t think we can predict who this will happen for.”  Nor does she believe that there is a magical panacea program that will work for every child.

As Fein’s project remains a work in progress, she continues to look for children who have recovered from autism to support her evidence and to attempt to find common factors among them.

She states that the “recovered” kids have scored very normally on all neurological tests as well as verbal and non-verbal tests.

Researchers are also taking images of the children’s brains to compare them with those of autistic and non-autistic children.  Typically, the brains of autistic kids tend to be larger than average.

The brain scans are also being used to look at brain function in the children to try to determine if their “normal” behavior can be attributed to “normal” brain activity, or if their brains have found a way to compensate for irregular function by processing information in an alternate manner.

A number of the children Fein’s group has examined also have higher-than-average IQ’s and were diagnosed with relatively mild cases of autism.  In most cases, significant signs of improvement were observed sometime around the age of 7.

Though none of the recovered children have exhibited signs of relapse, almost 75 percent of them have shown other minor disorders such attention-deficit problems and abnormal phobias.

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