Researchers from the University of Connecticut, who carried out the study, recruited 34 children with early histories of autism spectrum disorder who no longer met criteria for any autism spectrum diagnosis and in some cases had lost all symptoms.
They compared these children with an ‘optimal outcome’ to a group of 34 typically developing children. ‘Optimal outcome’ children attended mainstream school and did not receive targeted support.
Standard cognitive and observational tests and parent questionnaires revealed that the ‘optimal outcome’ children were indistinguishable from their peers and now showed no signs of problems with language, face recognition, communication or social interaction.
When compared to 44 children with ‘high functioning autism’ - those less severely affected by their condition - they found that children in the ‘optimal group’ had milder social deficits in early childhood and had slightly higher verbal IQs, although they did have other symptoms like repetitive behaviours and communication problems, that were as severe.
Deborah Fein from the University of Connecticut, who led the study, said, ‘All children with 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. 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.’
Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, 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 outcome for these children.'
An analysis of the children’s structural and functional brain imaging data, psychiatric outcomes and information on the therapies that the children received, will be published by the university in subsequent papers.
Commenting on the research, Dr Judith Gould, director of the National Autistic Society’s Lorna Wing Centre for Autism, said. 'This study is looking at a small sample of high functioning people with autism and we would urge people not to jump to conclusions about the nature and complexity of autism, as well its longevity.
'With intensive therapy and support, it’s possible for a small sub-group of high functioning individuals with autism to learn coping behaviours and strategies which would ‘mask’ their underlying condition and change their scoring in the diagnostic tests used to determine their condition in this research.'
She added, 'This research acknowledges that a diagnosis of autism is not usually lost over time and it is important to recognise the support that people with autism need in order to live the lives of their choosing. Getting a diagnosis can be a critical milestone for children with autism and their families, often helping parents to understand their children better and helping them to support their children in reaching their full potential. The importance of diagnosis can therefore not be underestimated.
'The National Autistic Society welcomes any research that seeks to better understand autism.'