Autism Researcher Suggests That Recovery Is Possible

child behind door by vata

University of Connecticut psychology professor Deborah Fein’s research suggests that 10 to 20 percent of children diagnosed with autism as toddlers later recover. Her study, which is still underway, found 20 children who met diagnostic criteria for autism before the age of 5 whose behaviour is no longer consistent with the diagnosis. Most of the recovered children received intensive behavioural therapy following this early diagnosis, with some receiving between 30 and 40 hours per week of therapy. Those who have “recovered” have sustained their gains so far, and the researchers are now comparing them to autistic kids as well as “neurotypicals;” brain imaging is being done to further investigate their functioning. Despite the progress made by some of the participants in her research, The Telegraph reported that:

Prof Fein warned however that even after lots of therapy, most autistic children remain autistic, adding that recovery was “not a realistic expectation for the majority of kids.”

Skeptics argue that the children in the study were not autistic to begin with, or that they continue to display social or other behavioural difficulties even if they no longer meet diagnostic criteria for the disorder. TheRecord.com reported that many of the recovered children were diagnosed with relatively minor forms of autism, and that they experience other difficulties as well: attention problems, tics, or phobias. Several met age-appropriate motor milestones.

One parent with an autistic child supports the Applied Behavior Analysis that has been found to make a difference for many children with the diagnosis. However, Kristina Chew noted that the focus on “recovery” can be counter-productive:

We’ve also some very exasperating interactions with ABA practitioners whose focus was on “recovering” Charlie and who, when they realized that he was not meeting his “recovery goals,” suggested (implicitly and explicitly) that we seek services from someone else.

Ms. Chew also observed that the effectiveness of the treatment varied considerably depending on the people administering it. She argued for flexibility and an understanding of the individual child as opposed to an adherence to the “principles of ABA.”

I don’t think anyone would argue that early identification and intervention are probably important factors in determining the eventual outcome for autistic children. One of the potential difficulties with Fein’s research is the heterogeneity of the children on the “autism spectrum,” which includes Asperger’s Disorder and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. At a workshop on identification and treatment that I attended a year or so ago, the speakers rightly said, “If you’ve seen one child with autism, you’ve seen one child with autism.” Hopefully, researchers will find some commonality that can give some insight into the potential for kids’ symptoms to improve with treatment!

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