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Study Finds Some Children Can "Recover" from Autism

Published on January 18, 2013 in Cornerstone Blog · Last updated 2 months 4 weeks ago


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A new study verifies the long-controversial belief that a few children, in exceptional cases, can “recover” from autism. The study, which included CHOP’s Center for Autism Research, is the first solid science to confirm that, however rarely, with the help of behavioral therapy some children can make such great improvements that they no longer qualify as having autism.

Published online Wednesday in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, the study was led by the University of Connecticut’s Deborah Fein, PhD. Investigators from Queens University in Ontario, Canada, the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn., and New York, N.Y.’s Child Mind Institute also contributed to the study. Director of the Center for Autism Research Robert Schultz, PhD, served as one of the study’s co-authors.

The researchers sought to explore whether the autism-recovery phenomenon was the result of an initial misdiagnosis, or whether the children’s recovery was complete. For example, the investigators asked, could the recovered children have retained significant social impairments despite losing the technical diagnosis of autism?

To test and document children who were diagnosed with autism at a young age but who no longer were qualified as such, Dr. Fein and her group compared three groups of patients. They examined a group with a history of autism and “optimal outcomes,” a second group who had high-functioning autism, and a group of children who were developing typically.

The study’s results “clearly demonstrate” that some children who had previously been diagnosed with autism later recovered, to the point that their communication and social skills were comparable to those of typically developing children.

“This study is the first to establish with firm evidence that a small percentage children with an autism spectrum disorder in early childhood can be essentially symptom free by adolescence,” said the Center for Autism Research’s Dr. Schultz. “Although there has been ample anecdotal evidence to this effect for many years, it was never clear that those cases were accurately diagnosed in the first place. This study puts that concern to rest and raises hope for families that some children do show dramatic recovery and what we are calling an “optimal outcome”.

As might expected, Dr. Feinstein’s study has already garnered a fair amount of media attention, from both the New York Times and the autism advocacy organization Autism Speaks, among others.

The researchers caution, however, that they don’t yet understand why some children recover and others don’t, and have no way to predict which patients will do well. Further studies are planned to better understand the well-being and social and communication skills of those children who do “recover.” According to Dr. Schultz, this study “provides an important scientific opportunity to study why and how these particular children did so well — what is it about their past interventions, their initial profile of strengths and weaknesses and their brain that we can learn from in order to try to generalize this result to the great majority of youth who don't achieve this optimal outcome?”

To learn more about the Center for Autism Research’s extensive body of work, see the Center’s website.