A new study of children suffering from autism offers hope to parents of youngsters who have been diagnosed with the condition that they may improve even to the point where they may be classed as “normal”. But researchers have been quick to point out that the complete absence of any aspects of autism is still rare.

Nevertheless, the research by the American National Institute of Mental Health at the University of Connectict offers an encouraging picture to parents who may have thought that there was little hope for their child ever living the kind of life they would hope for.

The researchers produced case histories of 34 children “with early histories of autism spectrum disorder” who were found at an older age to no longer meet criteria for any autism spectrum dianosis. In some cases these children “had lost all symptoms”. The researchers said that this group, classed as “optimal outcome children”, had attended mainstream school and had not received “targeted support”. The study found that over time they showed “no signs of problems with language, face recognition, communication or social interaction”.

Study leader Deborah Fein commented:

All children with autism spectrum disorder are capable of making progress with intensive therapy, but with our current state of knowledge most do not achieve the kind of optimal outcome that we are studying. Our hope is that further research will help us better understand the mechanisms of change so that each child can have the best possible life.

Putting the research in perspective so that it would not lead to false expections from some parents, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Thomas Insel, said:

Although the diagnosis of autism is not usually lost over time, the findings suggest that there is a very wide range of possible outcomes. For an individual child, the outcome may be knowable only with time and after some years of intervention. Subsequent reports from this study should tell us more about the nature of autism and the role of therapy and other factors in the long term outcome for these children.

The director of the National Autistic Society’s Lorna Wing Centre for Autism also stressed the need for caution in interpreting the results of the study, but emphasised the more positive outlook when early diagnosis was sought for children with autism:

This study is looking at a small sample of high functioning people with autism and we would urge people not to jump to conclusions about the nature and complexity of autism, as well its longevity. With intensive therapy and support, it’s possible for a small sub-group of high functioning individuals with autism to learn coping behaviours and strategies which would “mask” their underlying condition and change their scoring in the diagnostic tests used to determine their condition in this research. This research acknowledges that a diagnosis of autism is not usually lost over time and it is important to recognise the support that people with autism need in order to live the lives of their choosing. Getting a diagnosis can be a critical milestone for children with autism and their families, often helping parents to understand their children better and helping them to support their children in reaching their full potential. The importance of diagnosis can therefore not be underestimated.

William West

William West is a Sydney journalist.