Can Children Outgrow Autism?

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • Autism is considered a life-long condition. Some research suggests that a small number of children do “outgrow” autism, although some experts aren’t quite sure why this is or if a child, rather than outgrowing it, learns to adapt and adjust to the neurotypical world to the point that autism is no longer noticeable on the outside. These experts point out that despite the actions and outward appearance, the children who are considered no longer autistic might continue to have rigid thoughts and ritualistic behaviors but have learned to compensate for these and no longer “show” them in public.

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    Autism Speaks, a national advocacy group for autism, however, believes that some children do have outcomes that are “indistinguishable from typically developing children.” When this happens, it is called optimal outcome. A study released in January 2013 looked at children who had been diagnosed with autism prior to the age of five but no longer met the diagnostic criteria. All of the children had significant language delays - they did not use any words at 18 months and did not use simple phrases by 2 years old. All of the participants were between the ages of 8 and 21 years old.


    The children and young adults were given a range of assessments, including language, communication, face recognition and social interaction. Their results were compared to two groups: one group had never been diagnosed with autism and the other group was considered high functioning. The participant’s results were more closely matched with the neurotypical group than with those who had mild autism. The authors of the study believe that a small minority of children can and do outgrow a diagnosis of autism. Early intervention might play a role however, the author plans to complete further studies to look into whether certain types of treatment lead to better outcomes.


    This backs up a previous study, published in 2012, where the researchers surveyed 1,366 parents of children age 17 and younger who were previously diagnosed with autism. About one-third of the participants indicated their children no longer had autism. While it is possible that some of these children were originally misdiagnosed, the researchers don’t believe that is the only explanation. The authors of the study believe that, with therapy, children with autism can improve and “become more moderate and even mild a the years go by.”


    Those who no longer meet the criteria for autism might continue to show mild signs of autism, according to a study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorder. In this study, 15 children who no longer met the criteria for autism were compared to two groups; one with high functioning autism and one group that had never been diagnosed. Those who outgrew the diagnosis still had mild social deficits, were more likely to have verbal and physical tics and used peculiar language when narrating stories.


    The children were asked to look at pictures in a book and tell a story based on those pictures. Children in the group of children who outgrew autism and those who had high-functioning autism were more likely to self-correct and reword their narrations. The group with optimal outcomes were also more likely to use peculiar language than the control group, however, less likely to use this type of language than the group still diagnosed with autism. Some examples include using formal language and scripted speech during the narration. The narrations from the optimal outcome group were easier to follow along than those who had high-functioning autism. In that group, the children were less likely to name the characters, instead calling them “the human,” or “the man.” They also repeated themselves more often and used ambiguous pronouns.


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    The researchers are concerned that, despite no longer meeting the criteria for autism, these children may still need extra help in language and social interactions.


Published On: August 06, 2014