How to "beat" autism?

Written by: Manu Schuetze

It is easy these days to come across articles and reports about children who “beat” autism (see links below). There have always been cases of people who were diagnosed with autism when they were children but later in life lose this diagnosis because they didn’t show typical symptoms such as repetitive behavior, restricted interests and difficulties in communication and socializing anymore. However, not much attention has been paid to those rare cases. It was often believed that the original diagnosis must have been wrong in the first place as there is no known cure for autism at the moment.

 A recent article in the New York Times reports findings from systematic studies suggesting that there might be more to these situations than just a wrong initial diagnosis. One study looked at a group of children who were diagnosed with autism around the age of 2 and were assessed again at the age of 19. They found that 9% of the 19-year-olds no longer showed autistic symptoms. So, the answer to the question of whether someone can “beat” autism is: “Yes. It seems to be possible.” Another question that is much more complex and harder to answer is now: How is that possible?

 The study mentions that for all of the children who lost their diagnosis, their IQ at the age of 2 was above 70. Not one of the children who had an IQ of less than 70 at 2 years of age was among the 9% who lost their diagnosis. Furthermore, it was more likely that the children who no longer showed any autistic symptoms at the age of 19 had received treatment throughout their lives. So, the answer to the question of how one can “beat” autism seems to be a combination of treatment and differences in the disorder from early on.

 While it sounds promising that autism can be treated, it is important to keep in mind that autism is a highly complex disorder with many different symptoms. Hence the saying: “If you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism.” While a certain type of treatment might be very helpful for one child, it might not be as effective for another child.

 The problem that one treatment might help one child but not another shows how important it is to understand individual differences in autism. In our lab, we’re investigating how special interests of children with autism might motivate them to learn. Another article reported the case of a boy who seemed to have learned social interactions with the help of Disney movies, one of his main interests.

 The article in the New York Times also received negative reactions. Some people might argue that trying to provide a cure for autism implies that there is something wrong with children who have autism. They fear that the children from those articles are not really cured but have simply learned to cover their symptoms better in order to “fit in”. While there is certainly nothing wrong with children who have autism, we think that finding ways to provide individualized treatment can help to increase their well-being. Not being able to communicate and interact in social settings as their peers do frequently leads to being bullied and feelings of being different and socially detached. Also, despite showing unique talents and often finishing school with excellent grades, many adolescents with autism don’t find work due to their difficulties in interacting with other people. Improving social and vocational outcomes would benefit individuals with autism by enabling them to lead more independent lives, which is why the results of those studies are exciting and good news.


 The Kids Who Beat Autism



Reaching My Autistic Son Through Disney



The Kids Who Don’t Beat Autism



Original Research Study:

Anderson, D. K., Liang, J. W., & Lord, C. (2014). Predicting young adult outcome among more and less cognitively able individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 55(5), 485-494.