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Young Children May Lose Autism Label, but Learning Challenges Continue

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Cross-posted in Early Years

A small percentage of children who had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder as toddlers no longer showed symptoms of the disorder four years later, but most continued to have emotional or learning disorders, according to a study that was presented at a recent meeting of researchers in child health

The findings came from a study of 569 children living in New York between 2003 and 2013. They had all been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder through an early-intervention program around age 2 1/2. But 38 children—about 7 percent—showed no further signs of autism as young children when they were around 6 years old. 

Those 38 children did have normal cognitive function, but many, about 68 percent, also had learning disabilities. Nearly half had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and a quarter had disabilities such as anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, or selective mutism. Only three of the 38 had no other diagnoses. Nearly 75 percent of the children required academic supports, such as a small classroom or a resource room setting, according to the findings. 

The findings were presented Sunday at the Pediatric Academic Societies meeting in San Diego. The research was led by Dr. Lisa Shulman, a developmental pediatrician and a specialist in early identification and treatment of autism, based at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in New York.

"When an early ASD diagnosis resolves, there are often other learning and emotional/behavioral diagnoses that remain," said Dr. Shulman, in an interview with AAP News, a news magazine published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. "Understanding the full range of possible positive outcomes in this scenario is important information for parents, clinicians, and the educational system."

Diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorder Early

You may wonder how clinicians are able to diagnose autism accurately very young children. Dr. Shulman and the Einstein College of Medicine created this video of baby and toddler milestones that offers a good primer on social behavior and language development parents should expect from their children at different ages. What makes this video particularly useful is that it features real children as well. 

Photo: Alithea Morrison, second from right, sits next to her preschool teacher, Kathy Boisvert, as she and her classmates sing during class at Millville Elementary School in Millville, Mass. The class is one of more than 100 school sites for the Learning Experiences Alternative Program, which immerses children with autism spectrum disorder in classes with typically developing children who have been trained in ways to communicate and work with them.—Gretchen Ertl for Education Week

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