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Cognitive Skills in Kids With Autism May Improve With Time

Research Shows Cognitive Skills Vary in Children With Autism, and Sometimes Improve Over Time
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Sept 15, 2010 -- Many of the behavioral signs of autism spectrum disorder ebb and flow throughout childhood, but less was known about the trajectory of cognitive skills among these children. Now, a new study shows that patterns of cognitive skills, including being able to appreciate another person's thoughts and feelings and regulating behavior, vary among children with autism, and some may improve over time. The findings appear in the September/October 2010 issue of Child Development.

One in 110 children in the U.S. has an autism spectrum disorder, according to the CDC. Autism spectrum disorder is the umbrella term for a group of developmental disorders that can range from mild to severe and that often affect social interaction and communication.

The study compared cognitive skills of 37 children with autism with 31 children who did not have the developmental disorder. Researchers evaluated the children at age 5 through 6 and again three years later. The children were asked to predict a character's behavior after watching a video clip, perform a problem-solving task that required planning and flexibility, search for shapes hidden in pictures, and make patterns with wooden blocks. These tests measured the cognitive skills that are most typically affected in autism.

Varying Patterns of Cognitive Skills in Kids With Autism

The children with autism all exhibited varying patterns of cognitive strengths and weaknesses based on these tests, the study showed. Importantly and in contrast to other studies, many children with autism showed improvement in certain skills over time. For example, most of the children were better able to appreciate other's thoughts and feelings and could better regulate and control their behavior as they grew older.

“These findings are immensely encouraging for parents,” study author Liz Pellicano, PhD, of the Centre for Research in Autism and Education at the Institute of Education in London, says in an email to WebMD. “My study is important in that it shows instead that the cognitive skills of children with autism are not static, but change and, in most cases, improve over time,” she says. “They also show that there is not one trajectory of autism. The extent to which children’s cognitive skills improved was not the same for every child, with some children showing greater progress than others.” 

Translating Research Into Progress

The next step is to determine if there are ways to intervene and facilitate progress in some of these areas, she says.

"The more we understand the unique cognitive profile of individuals with autism, the more we can help them," says Geraldine Dawson, PhD, chief science officer of Autism Speaks and a research professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in an email to WebMD.

The unusual profile associated with autism includes areas of special strengths as well as weaknesses.

"We are learning better how to capitalize on the strengths associated with autism, such as having an excellent memory and strong visual skills, [and] we can use these strengths to teach people with autism about the social world," she says. "It was very encouraging to see that children in this study improved in their cognitive skills over time, even in areas of weaknesses," Dawson tells WebMD.

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