Can Autistic Children Bloom & Develop Later?

Autistic kids “bloom,” outgrow symptoms if given one-on-one early intervention

There’s good news and there’s bad news. And in between, there’s a whole new set of reasons to encourage parents of autistic children to keep plodding on.

Findings of a new study from Columbia University give parents of autistic children more hope — boosting the conventional wisdom that they should persist in making sure their kids get all the help they can need.

The study found about one in ten children diagnosed with severe autism goes on to experience rapid gains in skills — progressing from severely affected to high functioning. What’s more, by the time they turn 8 years old, this small group of autistic kids may even shed many symptoms of their disorder. Some may even grow out of their diagnosis by their teens.

That’s the good news. Even better? The study shows that it’s mainly persistent therapy that helps these autistic children “bloom” and develops their social and communication skills over time. Moreover, the study found that most autistic children don’t have intellectual disabilities — contrary to what is often assumed.

The bad news is that children of migrants and minorities in the United States — and those born to less-educated mothers are much less likely than richer white kids to fall into this “bloomer” group, the new study suggests. Findings are published online April 2 and in the May print issue of the journal Pediatrics.

The Columbia University researchers started out by wanting to track over time the development trajectories of autistic children. They thus studied the records of 6,975 children born in California between 1992 and 2001 who had been diagnosed with autism — a group that included most of the children who received that diagnosis in the state during that time period.

The kids were followed from diagnosis to age 14 or the oldest age they had reached by the time the study was concluded. Overall, the children had undergone at least four evaluations, roughly one every year, in which medical staff recorded their repetitive behaviors and their symptoms of social and communication difficulties.

What did they find?
• About one-third of the study group was considered low- to low/medium-functioning in terms of communication and social skills. This meant that they had trouble talking, interacting with others or socializing and making friends with peers.
• About 63 percent of the autistic children did not have intellectual disabilities. While autism is known to cause cognitive deficits in some children, it is also linked with certain enhanced intellectual abilities. In fact, some autistic children have extremely high IQs.
• Compared with those who started out with more severe autism, kids who had milder symptoms when they were first diagnosed tended to be doing better a few years later.
• Kids who had other intellectual disabilities along with autism weren’t likely to have very large improvements.
• The highest-functioning children tended to show the most improvement over time.
• Most improvements in autism symptoms occurred before the child turned six years old.
• When it came to social and communication scores, most kids improved over time — although some did much faster than others.
• But children’s repetitive behavior trajectories appeared to remain stable across the board.

One finding stands out: Almost 10 percent of kids — called “bloomers” by the researchers — improved especially quickly and by age 8, moved from “severely affected” to “high functioning.” And while these “bloomers” still retained some autistic symptoms — like repetitive behavior and rocking back and forth when stressed — they became able to communicate effectively, maintain friendships and social pursuits. Interestingly, IQ didn’t count: Low-functioning children without intellectual disabilities were twice as likely to “bloom” as the autistic kids who had cognitive deficits.