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Researchers See Recovery From Autism

Study Shows Some Children May 'Move off' the Autism Spectrum
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

May 11, 2009 -- One in 10 children diagnosed with autism or autism spectrum disorders may recover, says a researcher who presented data at the recent International Society for Autism Research meeting in Chicago.

"We don't know for certain what percent of children are capable of moving off the spectrum," Deborah Fein, PhD, the study's lead author and a Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, tells WebMD. "It's probably in the neighborhood of 10% or 20%."

In her research, children who received a treatment known as applied behavioral analysis and got it early seemed to be more likely to recover.

Fein draws the one in 10 figure from her previous research and from the reported results from her ongoing study, in which she and colleagues evaluated children ages 9 to 18 ''who clearly had a diagnosis of autism or autism spectrum disorder and have moved off the spectrum.''

The researchers' report at the meeting looked at the results of three groups:

•         20 "optimal outcome" children (a phrase Fein prefers to "recovered")

•         15  children with "high functioning" autism

•         23 comparison children developing typically

"We are very carefully verifying the early diagnosis and documenting in more detail than has been done before how the kids are turning out," says Fein. While previous reports have also found that some children do move off the autism spectrum, she says most of those have been by researchers involved in a specific treatment. "That doesn't mean [the reports] are not accurate," she says.

In the research, Fein and her colleagues looked back at such measures as head circumference growth patterns, which have previously been suggested to play a role in the development of autism. They found that the rate of head growth followed by deceleration was greater in the optimal outcome and high-functioning autism groups than in the comparison group. But the head-growth patterns were not different in the optimal outcome and high-functioning groups.

They found that above average IQ may help the recovered group normalize and speculated that the above average IQ may help the recovered children to compensate.

Most of the children who recovered received early applied behavioral analysis treatment, an intensive program that aims to improve problem behaviors, Fein found. They got it at a young age, she says, typically before age 4 or 5.

But she adds this caveat: "What I really want to get across to parents here is, if a child does not have this recovery, it doesn't mean the child didn't get good care. There are clearly a minority of kids with autism who have the potential to reach this outcome."

It's long been known that children with autism tend to also have coexisting conditions such as attention problems and anxiety, and Fein also found that even in the "recovered" children, the other conditions persist.

Nearly three-quarters of the optimal outcome children still had problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, or phobias. Currently, eight of the children still suffer from the problems, she reports.

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