Some Children Do Outgrow Autism, But It's Not What You Think

The truth about kids who lose their autism diagnoses.
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In the largest national study of children with autism to date, researchers examined one of the most mysterious aspects of autism spectrum disorder: that it sometimes simply vanishes.

An estimated 1 in 68 children have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in the U.S., but researchers are beginning to take note of a small minority of children with ASD who seem to "grow out" of their diagnoses.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed more than 1,400 children with ASD -- the largest nationally representative sample of children with autism to date -- and found that about 13 percent of them seemed to shed their ASD-associated behaviors as they grew up.

The catch: that doesn't mean they've stumbled upon some kind of miracle therapy or cure. Rather, as some previous researchers theorized, most of them were simply misdiagnosed or intentionally diagnosed with ASD for other reasons.

"The present study confirms that ASD diagnoses can and sometimes do change as children mature and overcome delays, and as new information is assimilated by their healthcare providers," said Stephen Blumberg, lead author and an associate director for science at the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics.

Partnering with the University of Washington and the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the CDC identified five factors that were most common among the children who went on to "outgrow" their diagnosis; these signs make it clear this subgroup was already higher functioning and had fewer symptoms at diagnosis.

Based on parent feedback, the diagnosis most often disappears in:

  1. Children who are able to use the bathroom without help
  2. Children who are able to eat without assistance
  3. Children who ask for what they need, be it objects or information
  4. Children whose parents were less likely to be concerned about developmental markers such as verbal skills and learning ability, and
  5. Children who were less likely to be referred to a specialist.

The study adds to a body of research on “lost” diagnoses that already suggests children most likely to outgrow ASD diagnoses are those with high IQs (over 70), early communication skills and intensive therapy. And children with certain sub-types of ASD, like Asperger’s Syndrome and PDD-NOS, are also more likely to lose their diagnosis.

Among parents whose child lost an ASD diagnosis, 73.5 percent said it was because they were given a new one, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (46 percent), anxiety problems (17 percent), depression (12 percent) learning disabilities (seven percent), behavioral problems (nine percent) or sensory, auditory, or processing disorders (23 percent).

Another 24 percent said they used the ASD diagnosis to access benefits and services. Meanwhile, 21 percent of parents believe their kids matured out of the disorder or received effective treatment. Less than 2 percent of patients believed their doctor simply got the diagnosis wrong.

The study can’t prove that overdiagnosis is becoming more common, the researchers wrote. However, heightened awareness about ASD and a push for more screening measures could be resulting in early, inaccurate diagnoses for ASD among doctors -- especially in those who don’t specialize in the disorder.

The research was published in the journal Autism.

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