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Research Suggests Some Children Can Recover From Autism

By Joan Firstenberg     May 8, 2009 in Health
Autism, it's on the rise, and no one knows where it came from, or how to treat it. But now a psychologist at the University of Connecticut says there is a way for autistic kids to overcome it by age 9.
It's nothing to do cartwheels about, but it is something to take under consideration. A small, but provocative study finds that at least 10 percent of autistic children can overcome the disorder by the age of 9. This can only happen if they undergo years of intensive behavior therapy.
Skeptics question this, but a psychologist with the University of Connecticut, Deborah Fein believes it's real. She presented her research this week at an autism conference in Chicago, showing that 58 children, who were correctly diagnosed when they were very young as autistic, were no longer, by the time they were 9, considered to be suffering from the disease.
The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, and involved children aged 9 to 18.
Among them was Leo Lytel of Washington, D.C., a boy who once made no eye contact, who echoed words said to him and often spun around in circles — all classic autism symptoms. Now he is an articulate, social third-grader. His mother, Jayne Lytel, says his teachers call Leo a leader.
Autism researcher Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer of the advocacy group Autism Speaks, called Fein's research a breakthrough.
"Even though a number of us out in the clinical field have seen kids who appear to recover, it has never been documented as thoroughly as Fein's work, We're at a very early stage in terms of understanding the phenomenon,"
Previous studies have shown that between 3 percent and 25 percent of autistic kids recover. Fein says her studies show the range is 10 percent to 20 percent.
But the caveat is that even after lots of therapy, most autistic children remain autistic.
Fein says, recovery is
"not a realistic expectation for the majority of kids," but parents should know it can happen,
But not everyone agrees with anything Fein says. They say, either they really weren't autistic to begin with ... or they're still socially odd and obsessive, but they don't exactly meet criteria" for autism,
But Fein says the children in her study "really were" autistic and now they're "really not."
University of Michigan autism expert Catherine Lord said she also has seen autistic patients who recover. Most had parents who spent long hours working with them on behavior improvement. But she adds...
"I don't think we can predict who this will happen for."
And she does not think it's possible to make it happen.
The children in Fein's study, which is still ongoing, were diagnosed by an autism specialist before age 5. Because the recovery phenomenon is so rare, Fein is still seeking children to help bolster evidence on what traits formerly autistic kids may have in common. Her team is also comparing these children with autistic and non-autistic kids. She says,
"The recovered kids are turning out very normal on neuropsychological exams and verbal and nonverbal tests."
The researchers are also doing imaging tests to see if the recovered kids' brains look more like those of autistic or non-autistic children. Autistic children's brains tend to be slightly larger than normal.
Most of the formerly autistic kids got long-term behavior treatment soon after diagnosis, in some cases for 30 or 40 hours weekly. Many also have above-average IQs and had been diagnosed with relatively mild cases of autism. At age 2, many were within the normal range for motor development, able to walk, climb and hold a pencil.
None of the children has shown any sign of relapse. But nearly three-fourths of the formerly autistic kids have had other disorders, including attention-deficit problems, tics and phobias; eight still are affected.
Jayne Lytel says Leo sometimes still gets upset easily but is much more flexible than before.
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