A recent article by Linda Carroll, Outgrowing Autism? Study Looks at Why Some Kids “Bloom” highlights a new Pediatrics study of 6,795 California children showing that “about 10 percent of children who are severely affected by autism at age three seem to have ‘bloomed’ by age eight, leaving behind many of the condition’s crippling deficits.”
This article got my attention because my own twins, although never diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, showed symptoms associated with Asperger’s by age 18 months but now, having just celebrated their eighth birthday, those symptoms seem like a distant bad dream we’d all like to forget.
Could I be the proud mother of a couple of bloomers?
Carroll’s article goes on to explain that when researchers looked at the characteristics of the bloomer’s families they found a few commonalities: bloomers tended not to have intellectual disabilities and their parents had more education and financial means to get early, intensive therapy. Mothers (fathers weren’t studied) had at least a high school education and came from a “higher socio-economic class.”
The anthology Easy to Love But Hard to Raise is full of parent’s stories, including my own, that share our ambitious, creative, and persistent search for solutions to our children’s behaviors and disorders, alongside the myriad of feelings that came with their diagnoses.
Parents who have been through it might question the use of the term “grown out of it” because it implies that the child might have shed their diagnosis simply with the passage of time. This article from February that studied 1,366 parents of autistic children suggests that 33 percent of children may downgrade their diagnosis to Asperger’s or shed their autism diagnosis altogether by age seven, but not without intensive parental support. Other previous studies have suggested that number lies between 3 and 25 percent. Parents of ETL kids understand that our children have improved because of our early, tenacious efforts and the help of teachers and professionals.
Another article published in Pediatrics in January supports the finding that children that “grow out” of autism tend not to have other physical and psychological diagnoses. Children with a hearing impairment were the most likely to shed the autism diagnosis because once their issues were addressed, the other autism-like symptoms resolved. This fact sheds light on the potential for misdiagnosis, which certainly exists when trying to diagnose children of preschool age and younger.
Can the study of autistic bloomers be extrapolated to children with other disorders? The answer seems to be the dreaded “it depends.” Psychologist Dr. Ari Tuckman’s video blog for ADDitude Magazine suggests that some children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD) improve because they learn to better manage their symptoms and their brains continue to develop and “tighten up” into their early 20’s. However, the majority of those with anxiety disorders report that severity can increase with age, although medication and cognitive behavioral therapy can help.
And what’s so magical about age seven or eight, the age by which these children are “growing out of” autism? Age seven is the beginning of a brain development phase termed The Period of Concrete Operations, a milestone of sorts, which lasts until around age twelve, where logic, organization, and problem-solving expand and egocentricity declines. Could more children be helped if diagnosed earlier? It’s too soon to tell but most studies suggest that the earlier the intervention, the greater potential for results. Fortunately, the average age of autism diagnosis has gradually come down to age four, but also means that many children are still diagnosed much later.
To help our eight-year-old twin boys, we sought the advice of physicians, naturopathic doctors, occupational therapists, ophthalmologists, and speech and language pathologists, while reading every relevant library book and web site under the sun, investing a small fortune, and spending the equivalent of a part-time job focused on their improvement. Many of my blog posts here have focused on the therapies we’ve tried. My husband and I do have more than a high school education and although we wouldn’t consider ourselves of “higher socio-economic class” we are frugal, resourceful, and willing to learn and faithfully execute the therapies we can do at home, avoiding expensive appointments when possible.
We definitely believe that our boy’s significant improvement over the past four years is due to the incredible, early support, education, and advice we’ve received from teachers, professionals, and fellow struggling parents, and for that, we are eternally indebted.
Although focusing on the 3 to 33 percent that are bloomers may leave some parents whose children are over age eight, suffering from multiple diagnoses, or lacking access to resources feeling hopeless, it’s my firm belief that clearly understanding what enables bloomers to thrive could eventually increase the number of children abandoning a diagnosis in the near future.
Animation courtesy of Gifbin.