Children can GROW OUT of autism: Controversial research suggests not all youngsters have the same fate
Autistic children who recovered appeared to have milder social difficulties but more repetitive behavioursBy studying children who appear to grow out of the disorder experts hope to create better therapies

Claire Bates


17:13 GMT, 15 January 2013



15:38 GMT, 16 January 2013

Autism is a condition some children manage to grow out of, a study has shown.

Experts studied 34 school-age children and young adults who had been diagnosed with autism early in life but now appeared to be functioning normally.

Tests confirmed that the group, aged eight to 21, no longer suffered symptoms of the developmental condition that makes it difficult to communicate and socialise.

Autistic children who recovered appeared to have milder social difficulties but more repetitive behaviours

Autistic children who recovered appeared to have milder social difficulties but more repetitive behaviours

The results, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, provide no estimate of the proportion of children likely to recover from autism.

But the researchers say they offer hope that in at least some cases, the handicap of autism can be left behind.

Dr Thomas Insel, director of the US National Institute of Mental Health which supported the study, said: 'Although the diagnosis of autism is not usually lost over time, the findings suggest that there is a very wide range of possible outcomes.

'For an individual child, the outcome may be knowable only with time and after some years of intervention. Subsequent reports from this study should tell us more about the nature of autism and the role of therapy and other factors in the long term out come for these children.'


Autism refers to a range of related developmental disorders that start in childhood and affect the person for their whole life.

Symptoms can be split into three broad groups:

1) Problems with social interaction

2) Impaired language and communication skills

3) Unusual patterns of thought and behaviour

People with autism may also be over or under-sensitive to sounds, touch, taste, smells, light or colour.

Symptoms can range from mild to severe but all can cause anxiety.

While some people with autism can live relatively independent lives, others may need a lifetime of specialist support.

There is no cure but there are a number of treatments to help autistic people better cope with the world around them.

Around one in 100 children in the UK have autism spectrum disorder. It is three times more common among boys than girls.

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Previous studies looking at the likelihood of autism recovery have proved inconclusive.

Questions remained over the accuracy of the original diagnosis, and whether children who appeared to grow up functioning normally started out with mild forms of the condition.

For the new study, early diagnostic reports by doctors were reviewed by a team of expert investigators.

The results suggested that recovering children tended to have relatively milder social difficulties early in life. But they were likely to suffer more severe symptoms relating to communication and repetitive behaviour.

The research team, led by Dr Deborah Fein, from the University of Connecticut, compared the 34 'optimal outcome' participants with the same number of normally functioning peers and 44 children and young adults affected by high-functioning autism. Each group was matched by age, sex, and non-verbal IQ.

Optimal outcome individuals showed no signs of problems with language, face recognition, communication or social interaction despite their previous diagnosis of autism.

The researchers are continuing to analyse data on changes in brain function in the children.

They are also reviewing records of the kinds of treatment the children received, and to what extent they may have contributed to their recovery, as well as the role played by IQ.

'All children with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) are capable of making progress with intensive therapy, but with our current state of knowledge most do not achieve the kind of optimal outcome that we are studying,' said Dr Fein.

'Our hope is that further research will help us better understand the mechanisms of change so that each child can have the best possible life.'