Can some children 'grow out of' autism?

Autistic children correctly diagnosed with the condition could lose symptoms of the disorder as they get older. This is according to new research published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, which suggested some kids might possibly grow out of autism.

Supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), investigators from the University of Connecticut looked at 34 children diagnosed with autism at a young age who later believed themselves to be functioning no differently to others the same age. They compared these youngsters with 44 peers with high-functioning autism and 34 youngsters deemed to have developed in the typical manner.

Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health - which is a component of the NIH that deals with mental health disorder issues - explained that although autism diagnosis is not often lost over time, these findings point to numerous possible outcomes for children with the illness.

Mr Insel stated: "For an individual child, the outcome may be knowable only with time and after some years of intervention."

Professor Uta Frith from University College London, an Honorary Fellow of the British Psychological Society, comments on this study:

"It took a while to accept that autism spectrum disorders are lifelong, but now we have to modify this belief. I am persuaded by Fein's study that autism 'goes away' in a small number of cases, and this fits in with my personal but only half acknowledged experience.

"Even if it is only a small the number of cases, the impact on theories of neurocognitive development will be enormous. My guess is that all neurodevelopmental disorders, not just autism, may have a variant that is temporary."

Dr Sinead Rhodes from the University of Strathclyde adds:

"This study adds to growing evidence that a small proportion of children with developmental disorders, in this case autism spectrum disorder (ASD), may begin to show reduced or even absent symptoms of their original diagnosis with development. Similarly, some children with the developmental disorder ADHD show a reduction of symptoms with development and no longer meet diagnostic criteria as older children.

"It is important to note, however, that children who no longer meet diagnostic criteria for a developmental disorder may still show significant functional impairment. The authors indeed report that some of the 'optimal outcome' group were judged to have social functioning mildly affected by non-autism conditions, such as anxiety or impulsivity.

"As the National Autistic Society emphasises in their comment on this story, the study included a small sample of high functioning children and the number of children who no longer meet diagnostic criteria for ASD will be a small proportion of those affected by the disorder. Developmental disorders such as these tend to be life-long conditions."