Study suggests 'outgrowing' autism a possibility - WNCT

Study suggests 'outgrowing' autism a possibility

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Amy Bulbrook says she hopes her son Harry, who was diagnosed with autism when he was 2, will eventually live independently. Amy Bulbrook says she hopes her son Harry, who was diagnosed with autism when he was 2, will eventually live independently.
RALEIGH, N.C. -

A recent study offers a glimmer of hope for normalcy for parents of autistic children, claiming that some individuals may "outgrow" autism. However those closest to people with the developmental disorder are calling the study into question.

Published in the "Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry," researchers concluded that some individuals with autism may move off the spectrum.

"It is possible for children on the spectrum to move off the spectrum and function within the normal range of functioning socially, academically and cognitively," lead researcher, University of Connecticut professor, Deborah Fein, said. 

The idea that an autistic individual may move off the autism spectrum is described as "optimal outcome." The report is part of a larger study "designed to better understand the phenomenon of 'optimal outcome' in [Autism Spectrum Disorders]."

[LINK] WSJ: Who Can Outgrow or Recover From Autism
[LINK] Time: New Study Suggests Autism Can be 'Outgrown'
[LINK] PsychCentral: Researchers Explore Why Some Kids Seem to Outgrow Autism

Fein says past studies have shown "recovery" in individuals with autism, but this study set out to document that individuals proven to have autism at a young age truly did fully move off the spectrum and were "functioning very well."

"So it was more convincing to more people," Fein said of the study.

Amy Bulbrook, whose son Harry was diagnosed when he was 2 years old, says she doesn't "buy it." Bulbrook said, "Children who truly have this diagnosis of autism, don't just suddenly lose the diagnosis."

While the study acknowledges that moving off of the autism spectrum is not generally considered a realistic goal; in reviewing long-term outcomes, "between 3 percent and 25 percent of individuals with [Autism Spectrum Disorders] eventually lost their diagnosis."

"[O]ur definition of 'optimal outcome' included losing the ASD diagnosis and functioning within the normal cognitive range," the study points out. "There is an additional group of children who lose the diagnosis, but still have significant intellectual or language disability and this is certainly another kind of good outcome for these children."

Rather than outgrowing autism, Bulbrook suggests early intervention and therapy will help Harry to eventually live independently. Harry is learning social skills with his sisters at Innovative Speech Therapy in Apex.

Bulbrook says the next step is providing him a normal life -- not normal according to society, but to him.

"It's about accepting them for where they are and not trying to fix them to what we think they should be," Bulbrook said.

Acknowledging the importance of familial cooperation and involvement, the study says that marked improvement was seen in children whose parents were highly involved with the treatments. "Parents who advocate vigorously for the best interventions and who carry over treatments into other hours of the day" may have children more likely to move off the spectrum.

Mary Lou Warren, whose 50-year-old son George has autism, echoes this sentiment, explaining that early intervention and early education could have changed the course of George's life.

Warren says she taught George how to mow the grass, and he is now driving a riding lawnmower. But at the time of his diagnoses in the 1960s, little was known about autism.

"We left him there for a week, and when we went back to get him, they told us then," Warren recalled. "That was the first time I heard the word, 'autism' -- [George] had a very severe emotional problem with autistic mannerisms."

The doctors, Warren said, recommended "that we should put him in an institution and forget him."

Warren admits that over time George's autistic characteristics have diminished, but recently he has been exhibiting some behavior she says she hasn't seen since he was a child.

"He's begun to do the rocking again, which he was not doing," Warren explained.

Warren's story is common for many parents of autistic children, and that is why the study's conclusion left many in the autism community shocked. Although, the study acknowledges that "even if an individual no longer meets criteria for ASD, he or she might manifest traits reflecting persistent core features of ASD."

Still, the study provides some hope for parents as it is a step toward better understanding the complicated disorder. It also offers a prognosis "widening the range of possible outcomes for autism."

Fein says the conclusion reflects only the minority and should not be applied towards most children with autism.

"The results should certainly give hope to parents of young children, for whom this might be a possibility," Fein said. "However, it is very important for parents to understand that this outcome is not possible, given what we know about treatment currently, for most affected children.

"We don't know the percent who can recover, but it is certainly a minority. If parents have a child who has not lost the diagnosis, which is certainly the majority, they should not feel they could have caused a different outcome with different treatment."

Eileen Park

Eileen joined WNCN after years of working as a foreign correspondent. During her time off, she enjoys relaxing with her dogs, reading, and exploring the Triangle. More>>

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