Can Kids "Recover" from Autism? Study Says Yes
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.
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.
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.