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Severity of autism symptoms can change during early childhood

Researchers say changes are likely due to the way the brain develops

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Photo (c) ThitareeSarmkasat - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from the University of California found that the severity of autism symptoms in young children can shift dramatically as they grow and develop into childhood. 

The researchers learned that the natural development of the brain allows for symptoms to improve over time. 

“We found that nearly 30 percent of young children have less severe autism symptoms at age six than they did at age three,” said researcher David Amaral. “In some cases, children lost their autism diagnoses entirely.”

A reduction in symptoms

To better understand how children’s autism symptoms can change over time, the researchers analyzed data from the Autism Phenome Project (APP), which included information from over 120 children. 

The children were between the ages of two and three when the study began, and the researchers assessed their symptoms annually using the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule’s Calibrated Severity Score. Because the goal of the study was to determine a change in symptoms over time, the children fell into one of three categories: decreased severity, stable severity, or increased severity. 

More than half of the children were stable over time, while nearly 17 percent had worsening symptoms and nearly 30 percent had reduced symptoms as the study progressed. By the study’s end, seven children were no longer showing signs of autism. 

The researchers learned that general IQ could be an indicator of the intensity of autism symptoms among young ones. The study found a direct link between higher IQs and a lower severity of symptoms. 

“IQ is considered to be the strongest predictor of symptom severity for children with autism,” said researcher Einat Waizbard-Bartov. “As IQ scores increased from age three to age six, symptom severity levels decreased.” 

Girls more likely to have reduced symptoms

The study also revealed that the girls in the study were more likely than the boys in the study to experience a reduction in the severity of their symptoms. According to Waizbard-Bartov, this could be because girls “have learned how to mask their symptoms,” though more research is needed to determine the root of this trend. 

While IQ and gender certainly come into play, the researchers explained that it’s hard to determine why this fluctuation in autism symptoms occurs in children -- especially for those whose symptoms worsened over time. 

“It is also true that some children appear to get worse,” Amaral said. “Unfortunately, it is not currently possible to predict who will do well and who will develop more severe autism symptoms and need different interventions.” 

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