Is It Possible to Recover from Autism?

A 2008 literature review reported that 3 to 25 percent of affected people eventually recover. But the recent study was especially rigorous. The researchers recruited three groups of eight- to 21-year old subjects: 34 of them had apparently recovered from autism, 44 had high-functioning autism, and another 34 were control subjects with no developmental issues.

The study's findings were encouraging: those who recovered were on a par with the typically developing individuals and better than the group with high-functioning autism in their social and communication skills and in their ability to go about daily life, such as taking care of themselves and doing housework. These findings, according to some experts, represent a watershed moment in autism research, “clearly demonstrating the possibility of leaving behind the symptoms of [autism] and emerging into a state of healthy functioning,” writes University of California, Davis, psychologist Sally Ozonoff, who was not involved in the study.

Kelley points out another limitation of the study: it looked back at recovery after it had happened. The retrospective design cannot reveal what proportion of kids will shed their diagnosis or why. Parents often try a variety of interventions, including behavioral treatment, speech and occupational therapy, and medication—and they do not always keep detailed records. Until researchers report on the outcomes of children they starting following very early in life, “we have no idea why some people recover,” Kelley says.

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