Can Kids "Recover" from Autism? Study Says Yes

Filed under: Research Reveals: Toddlers & Preschoolers, Research Reveals: Big Kids

Can some kids "recover" from autism? A new study says yes. Photo by tiwi at sxc.

Having a child diagnosed with autism is a very real fear for parents these days. In the United States, one in 150 children -- and one in 98 boys -- are categorized as autistic. But a new study offers hope for these kids, and their families: According to University of Connecticut psychology professor Deborah Fein, it is possible that between 10 and 20 percent of kids diagnosed with autism may "recover."

Fein studied 20 children who were diagnosed -- correctly -- with autism before age 5. Today, they no longer meet the diagnostic standards for autism. Most had long-term behavior treatment after diagnosis, in some cases 30 to 40 hours a week. But here's the catch: The children in the study also had above-average IQs and were diagnosed with relatively mild cases of autism. In addition, they were within the normal range for motor development at age 2, and were able to walk, climb, and hold a pencil, unlike many children diagnosed with autism, who often have both fine and gross motor skills delays.

Fein and her research team are trying to isolate what it was about these kids that made "recovery" possible; they are looking at brain scans as well as trying to identify what traits the "recovered" children have in common. Fein says that the kids in her study "are turning out very normal," at least in the context of neuropsychological exams and verbal and nonverbal tests. Frankly, I am skeptical. Very skeptical. I suspect that rather than "recovering" from autism, these kids outgrew whatever it was that was causing them to be different.

Activist Celeb Parents

    Jenny McCarthy and partner Jim Carrey are founders and board members of Generation Rescue, "an international movement of scientists, physicians and parent-volunteers researching the causes and treatments for autism." McCarthy's son Evan is autistic.

    Greg Grunberg plays a superhero on TV, but he's a real hero to people with epilepsy. His web site, Talk About It, encourages people to understand what epilepsy is and dispells the myths surrounding the disease.

    Grunberg and his wife, Elizabeth Wershow, have three sons; the oldest, Jake, is epileptic. "It's hard to find someone who is going through exactly what you're going through," Grunberg says.

    The Material Mom's NGO, Raising Malawi, is "dedicated to bringing an end to the extreme poverty and hardship endured by Malawi's 2 million orphans and vulnerable children." The organization provides at-risk children with food, shelter, clothing, and education -- because not even Madonna can adopt them all.

    Golden Globe winner and Irish hottie Colin Farrell's son has Angelman Syndrome, a rare form of cerebral palsey. In 2007, Farrell went public with his story, telling the Irish press that "from day one I felt that he's the way he's meant to be."

    Actress and mom Salma Hayek is a breastfeeding advocate -- going so far as to nurse another woman's baby on a recent visit to Africa. "It's like, I don't care if I cry, I don't care if I'm fat, I'm just gonna do it for one more week, one more month," she explains. "Then, when I see how much good it is doing her, I can't stop."

    No one expected much of Nicole Richie and Joel Madden as parents, but they've proven all the doubters wrong. The couple, who are expecting their second child, have started the Richie-Madden Children's Foundation to help kids and families in need. That's a nice example to set for daughter Harlow and her new sibling.

    Heather Mills is most recently famous for her no-holds-barred divorce from Sir Paul McCartney, but she's also heavily involved with the British campaign No More Landmines, raising funds to clear undetonated landmines, which are particularly dangerous to children.

    Like Jenny McCarthy, Dan Marino has an autistic son. The former Miami Dolphins quarterback's Dan Marino Foundation is currently working with the Obama White House to develop policies relevant to disabled people, specifically those with autism and austism spectrum disorders.

    In August of 2005, Jim Kelly's son Hunter died of Krabbe disease, an inherited degenerative disorder of the central and peripheral nervous systems. Two years later, Kelly and his wife, Jill, established the Hunter's Hope Foundation, which has raised millions of dollars for research.

Here's why I think that: When my son was three, he was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Like the parents in the study, we started intensive behavior modification therapy. My son is nearly nine now, and he no longer meets the criteria for autism. Like Leo Lytle, one of the boys in Dr. Fein's study, my son "once made no eye contact ... echoed words said to him and often spun around in circles." But also like Leo, my son is now a bright, successful second grader, who does well in school and plays baseball and begs to have friends come for sleepovers. So I'm familiar with the kind of "recovery" that Dr. Fein saw in her patients.

But he's still not exactly like other kids his age. He's just not autistic, or at least he no longer meets the criteria for that label.

I don't believe, for a moment, that my son "recovered" from autism, the way that kids "recover" from a virus or an injury. Instead, I think that the diagnostic labels for autism disorders have been stretched so far that they now encompass kids like my son, who have other issues that set them apart from their peers. Many of the kids in this particular study, the ones who "recovered," continued to exhibit quirky behaviors -- attention issues and tics and phobias. They are still, somehow, neurologically different from other kids their age.

Dr. Fein acknowledges that the kind of results she saw in this study are "not a realistic expectation for the majority of kids." Critics, she says, argue that kids who "recover" from autism "either ... really weren't autistic to begin with ... or they're still socially odd and obsessive, but they don't exactly meet criteria" for autism. I think the truth lies somewhere in between.

Current autism labels cover everything from profound cases -- children and adults who have no social interaction with the world -- to kids like my son, who are quirky and odd and who struggle socially. To say that some kids will "recover" offers a false hope to families of profoundly autistic children. I am heartened by the part of this study that focuses on what it traits the "recovered" kids share, not because I think this knowledge will help cure other autistic kids, but because it may lead to better diagnostic tools and better labels and, hopefully, better therapies for kids like Leo Lytle and my son, kids who are lagging socially and who struggle to figure out the rules of interpersonal interaction, but who can, with therapy and the right support systems, learn to function -- and succeed -- socially and academically.

ReaderComments (Page 1 of 1)


Flickr RSS



AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.