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Is It Possible For Adults To Recover From Autism Spectrum Disorder?

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Research shows that adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder can overcome this condition

The title of this blog is based on a 2013 article in Scientific American that questioned whether it is possible to recover from autism. I thought it would be useful to review some of findings from this article and pose the question whether those findings might translate to adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Here is a synopsis of the article.

One hundred subjects, ranging in age from 8 to 21 years, were divided into three groups: some who had high functioning autism, others who were control subjects with no autistic issues, and a third group who appeared to have recovered from autism. Measures were taken to ensure that the subjects in the latter group were, in fact, recovered and had not been erroneously diagnosed with autism prior to the study.

The findings indicated that the subjects who had recovered from autism were significantly similar to those in the control group and also were functioning much better than the high-functioning autism group. In the words of the researchers, the study was, “clearly demonstrating the possibility of leaving behind the symptoms of (autism) and emerging into a state of healthy functioning.”

Unfortunately, this study was not able to establish what proportion of people with autism can “outgrow” their autistic characteristics nor how they are able to do so. To the best of my knowledge, subsequent research has yet to answer these two important questions.

How Is This Relevant To Adults With Autism Spectrum Disorder?

In 2014, the terms Asperger’s and autism were eliminated from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-5, the authoritative guide of mental disorders, and replaced by a broader category called, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). People who had formerly been classified with Asperger’s syndrome were now said to have ASD, along with those who had previously been thought to have high-functioning autism. Nowadays, we view people who had been labeled with Asperger’s in the past as on the upper, or less severe, end of the autism spectrum. To add to the confusion, Asperger’s syndrome is still in common usage, given that the term has been widely used for many years. For some people, it still connotes a condition that is similar to, but also distinct from, autism. Many, myself included, consider Asperger’s and high-functioning autism to be interchangeable, being less severe in degree from autism.

The significance of the original 2013 study for adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder is clear. It is possible for people with this condition to lose their symptoms and to develop behaviors that are virtually indistinguishable from those of typical adults. Although exactly which people are able to do so is not clear, some indications point to early development of verbal skills and fewer restricted and repetitive behaviors when young, as predictive of later improvements in adulthood, including the disappearance of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

What Does This Mean?

A simple Google search will demonstrate the prevailing opinion, by laypeople and experts alike, that people with autism, including high-functioning autism, have a life-long and incurable condition. The fact is, that’s not true. Clearly, some people do change, to the point where they no longer behave like people with Autism Spectrum Disorder, aka high-functioning autism. As I said previously, we don’t know exactly how this happens or which people are able to make those changes, nevertheless some people do. No longer is it possible to say unequivocally that adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder cannot outgrow this condition and become ordinary, typical or neurotypical, people.

This should give hope to those who aspire to shed their Autistic behavior. It can happen. The route to this end is not fully understood but at least the idea that Autism Spectrum Disorder is built into one’s constitution and thereby fixed, permanent and unalterable is no longer true.


Dr. Kenneth Roberson

Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Adult Autism Psychologist in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience. Click below to ask a question or schedule an appointment.

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