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Why Do Some Children Seemingly Grow Out of Autism?

Recently a new website/online resource popped up called Spectrum, which bills itself as “the leading source of news and expert opinion on autism research.” The site is a fantastic resource for keeping up on the bleeding-edge of autism research and treatment, but it also has published several attention-getting pieces that look at greater trends in autism.

We’re going to look at one article in particular, “The Children Who Leave Autism Behind” as it presents an in-depth look at a topic we have not discussed here before: namely, why do some children seem to grow out of autism while others wrestle with the condition for the entirety of their lives?

Up until the past couple of years, the notion that someone could “recover” from autism was controversial at best, especially since the concept of recovery posits that autism is an illness, leading most researchers to avoid the term.

Nonetheless, the idea first entered the wider research community in 1987 when University of California–Los Angeles psychologist Ole Ivar Lovaas reported that half of a group of children who were treated with forty hours per week of applied behavioral analysis (ABA) became “indistinguishable” from other neurotypical children. While many researchers have demonstrated that ABA can significantly improve children’s cognitive and language skills, Lovaas’ claim that ABA could result in a “recovery” from autism was largely debunked.

Despite Lovaas’ overblown claims, researchers still found that some children diagnosed with autism appeared to eventually lose their social and communication impairments, though researchers lacked any real proof until a 2013 study, led by clinical psychologist, Deborah Fein, which brought the notion of recovery back to the table. Fein reported that in her practice, occasionally she would encounter a child diagnosed with autism who, over time, would appear to seemingly leave behind the symptoms of autism. In her study, she identified thirty-four children who had achieved what she referred to as an “optimal outcome” in regards to their autism diagnosis, but failed to concretely identify exactly why this was the case.

Another study in 2014 published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry traced the development of eighty-five children with autism from the ages of two to nineteen and found that of the thirty-two children who were found to no longer have an intellectual disability, eight no longer met the diagnostic criteria of autism.

While both the 2013 and 2014 study conclusively demonstrated that children could seemingly “recover” or “leave behind” the symptoms of autism, neither study was able to explain why this was the case. Subsequent research however has pointed toward early access to treatment playing a large role in the outcomes of the children who no longer meet the criteria for autism.

Furthermore, there is debate amongst researchers whether it’s correct to even say that an individual can truly leave autism “behind,” with the special education advocate Carol Greenburn arguing that in these cases, people have lost their autism, but rather developed the coping skills necessary to “simulate a non-autistic persona.”

So whether one can truly outgrow autism is still a matter for further scientific debate, there is conclusive evidence that with access to early therapy, some children diagnosed with autism can seemingly develop in a way that by the time they are an adult, they no longer can be considered to be living with autism. At the same time, researchers are quick to point out that even with those that seem to outgrow the condition, it can be difficult to ever truly think of autism in the past tense as it plays a large role in the development of any child with a diagnosis. To learn more about this area of research, we encourage you to check out the article here.