Do Some People “Outgrow” Autism?

Eileen Bailey Health Guide January 29, 2013
  • Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are characterized by communication and social impairment and these symptoms can create difficulty throughout a person’s life. But some recent research questions whether some people can “outgrow” autism, no longer fitting the definition of ASD and functioning within social norms.

    A study, published in the February, 2013 issue of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, looked at 34 individuals with ASD who had previously had “severe difficulties with communication and repetitive behaviors” [1] although they had milder social impairment than those who are considered high functioning autism. None of the participants spoke before the age of 18 months or used phrases before the age of 2 years old. All had been diagnosed with autism prior to age 5 by a doctor or psychologist specializing in autism. Participants in the study ranged in age from 8 to 21 and all had an IQ higher than 77.


    Researchers compared three groups:

    • The 34 participants no longer meeting the criteria for ASD
    • 44 people of the same age, gender and IQ with high functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome, still showing symptoms
    • 34 typically developing people of the same age, gender and IQ


    Participants were interviewed and assessed on scales commonly used to diagnose autism. These interviews were taped and experts reviewed all of the interviews. Additional information such as attending school without one-on-one assistance, no longer needing social skills classes and having at least one typically developing friend was also taken into account. Based on these assessments and information, all of the participants were considered no longer meeting the diagnostic criteria for autism. All had received treatment including behavioral strategies to reward desired social and communication behaviors.

    In an editorial that accompanied the study, Sally Ozonoff, professor of psychiatry at the University of California Davis Medical Center stated, “these results ‘substantiate the possibility of optimal outcome,’ demonstrating that some children with a clear early history and accurate diagnosis of ASD do indeed move into the entirely normal range of social and communication development later in childhood.” [3]  

    Advocates aren’t sure about the findings. In an article on Time.com, Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network said, “We don’t think the idea that people ‘outgrow’ autism - or can be made through treatment to become non-autistic - is accurate.” [4] Instead, he believes the participants learned to “act” normal in order to fit in with their peers. He thinks that they may still have “urges to engage in repetitive behavior and endlessly talk about their obsessions, but they have learned to channel their intense drives into repressing this and behaving the way normal people expect.” [5]  He is concerned that the message of the study is that treatment should be geared toward making autistic people “normal” rather than tailored to improving the quality of life for each individual with ASD.


  • Another concern is that by working toward normality, treatments will overlook the skills and talents of those with autism. Ozonoff writes, “I think we will have to see, through further study of this group, whether these children are not doing as well as they could have, if they had let flourish certain characteristics that are common in autism...There are many very special qualities and ways of being that autism can bring to individuals and to all of us in general” [6] For example, many people with autism have special interests, which they immerse themselves in, and can lead to greatness within their field of interest.


    While for some parents, this study may bring hope that their child may “outgrow” autism, research has shown that somewhere between 3 and 25 percent of those with a diagnosis of autism will later lose that diagnosis. For most, the symptoms of autism are life-long but the benefits are life-long as well. Ozonoff states, “Most of us in the field certainly agree that the most important outcome is happiness, functionality and high quality of life.” [7]

    References:

    [4] [5] “New Study Suggests Autism Can Be ‘Outgrown’” 2013, Jan 22, Maia Szalavitz, Time Magazine

    [1] [2] “Optimal Outcome in Individuals with a History of Autism,” 2013, Feb, D. Fein et all, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry

    [3] [6] [7]  “Recovery from Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and the Science of Hope,” 2013, Jan 16, Sally Ozonoff, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry

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