There are no solid numbers showing what percentage of children diagnosed with autism eventually lose that diagnosis. But the idea that autistic children could recover began to gain traction in 1987 when UCLA psychology professor Ivar Lovaas said he saw a 47 percent recovery rate using intensive behavioral therapy. Many researchers, however, questioned whether some of the children in that and other studies truly had autism in the first place.
The new study, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, has put these questions to rest, autism experts say.
For the study, a team of psychiatrists led by Deborah Fein of the University of Connecticut recruited 34 people who had been diagnosed before age 5 and had since lost their diagnosis according to the team's extensive interviews and behavioral observations. The team also solicited independent verification of the children's initial diagnoses.
Fein is quick to caution that the overwhelming majority of children with autism will not recover. "I've seen hundreds and hundreds of kids who got great therapy and excellent parenting," she said. "They all made progress, but very few of them reached that stage."
In general, she added, "it's very hard to predict who is going to respond rapidly to intervention."This report is more accurate than most. But some psychologists would dispute the suggestion that the new study has ended all questions about Lovaas's findings: some argue that the 47% figure was too high.
Another unknown is how recovery comes about. Most families try several therapies, often several at once, making it difficult to tease out which are most important for producing optimal outcomes.