a young man smilingIs it possible to “outgrow” autism? Clinicians generally believe that some individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) can eventually overcome social problems, but that it is not possible to leave the autism spectrum entirely. According to new research from the University of Connecticut, some individuals do completely overcome autism. The research team refers to this as the optimal outcome—when an individual so thoroughly leaves the symptoms of autism behind that he or she no longer meets the disorder’s diagnostic criteria. Individuals who achieve the optimal outcome not only overcome social deficits, but also stop practicing repetitive behaviors.

The study is part of a series focused on a group of young people in the United States and Canada. The study evaluated individuals between the ages of eight and 21 who had an autism spectrum disorder, but who are no longer on the spectrum. The researchers compared the 34 individuals in the optimal outcome group with individuals whose autism diagnosis persisted. In an attempt to determine what makes some overcome autism but not others, the researchers asked parents to recall the individuals’ early life behaviors.

The researchers were not able to determine exactly why some individuals reach the optimal outcome and some do not. The parent reports of childhood behaviors did not reveal any significant differences between the two groups, but the researchers suggest that children who overcome autism may have milder social deficits as children compared to those who remain on the spectrum. The individuals in the optimal outcome group had more routines and rituals surrounding meals and bedtime, but unlike the individuals in the control group, their routines did not interfere with everyday life. The researchers conclude that individuals in the optimal outcome group are diverse and that more research is required to understand what unites people who outgrow autism.

The research team plans to continue their work using brain scans. This may reveal why some people achieved the optimal outcome. Uncovering why some people improve significantly more than others can help clinicians predict who can overcome autism and what interventions can help them get there.

This research is published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

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