Aging Out of Autism

3 minute read
Maia Szalavitz

There’s no shortage of therapies for autism, some of which work well, some not so well. But there is one simple treatment that hasn’t been getting the attention it may deserve: time. According to a new study in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, some children who receive behavioral interventions to treat autism might be able to age out of their symptoms, outgrowing them like last year’s shoes.

The idea of maturing out of psychological ills is not new. All 10 personality disorders, for example–including schizoid, which shares features with schizophrenia–can lessen as people age. Some of this may be attributable to patients’ learning to manage their symptoms, but it’s also possible that the brain, which is still developing into our late 20s, is improving too. “The fact that these things aren’t engraved in granite is terribly exciting,” says psychologist Mark Lenzenweger of the State University of New York at Binghamton.

There have been hints that this kind of remission might be possible in autism, but previous studies were plagued with questions about whether the children who had apparently shed their autism were properly diagnosed with the disorder in the first place. In the current analysis, a team led by psychologist Deborah Fein of the University of Connecticut looked at 34 people ages 8 to 21 who had been diagnosed with autism but no longer met the criteria for the disorder. It compared them with 44 patients in the same age group who still had symptoms. Both groups had received similar treatments. After the researchers corrected for other variables, the subjects with the better outcomes seemed simply to have matured out of the condition.

“I view it as a landmark kind of study,” says Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer for Autism Speaks. Others disagree. It’s possible, they say, that some kids just mask their symptoms, imitating healthy behaviors that they come to appreciate as desirable. Still, it’s hard to dismiss Fein’s work entirely. The 34 subjects whose symptoms had vanished were able to attend school without one-on-one assistance and needed no further social-skills training. Something had to account for that, and maturation, in this research at least, is the best answer. “There have been no other studies of this kind in the past,” says psychology professor Sally Ozonoff of the University of California at Davis. There will surely be more in the future.

Sources: Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry; Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology; Dept. of Labor; Help Remedies

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