Can Someone Recover from Autism?


When Tyler was one, his parents began to notice certain behaviors that seemed atypical. He didn’t make eye contact or wave hello or goodbye, and he often seemed to be in his own world. As a toddler, he began lining up his toys, having tantrums, and walking on his toes. When he was a bit older, his parents took him to a developmental pediatrician, and received a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

When his mother heard his diagnosis, she was devastated at first, and began experiencing denial and depression. All the hopes and dreams she had for her son seemed impossible to her now. Once she gained acceptance, she read a lot and talked to other parents going through similar situations. Everyone emphasized early intervention to treat the symptoms, so she signed her son up for occupational therapy, play therapy, speech therapy, and Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA).

The cost was enormous, as insurance didn’t cover a lot of the therapies. But in the months and years that followed, Tyler showed remarkable improvement. By the time he finished kindergarten, he was chatty and amiable, though he remained socially awkward. He would talk about subjects that were of interest to him incessantly to anyone who would, or wouldn’t, listen.Through the years, at IEP meetings and via email, Tyler’s teachers kept his parents abreast of his progress and challenges, and his therapists worked with him on his areas of need.

Whether because of the therapy or maturation or something else, many of Tyler’s symptoms were no longer evident by third grade. Tyler’s doctor concluded that the last vestiges of his autism were gone; and he no longer met the criteria, even in its mildest form.

ASD is considered a lifelong developmental disorder, but its diagnosis is based on behavioral symptoms, including social difficulties, fixated interests, obsessive or repetitive actions, and intense or dulled reactions to sensory stimulation. Though the symptoms of ASD frequently become less severe by adulthood, the consensus has always been that its core symptoms remain. Most doctors have long dismissed as wishful thinking the idea that someone can recover from ASD; however as you can see in our example and the research presented below, it is possible for some.

The idea that autistic people could recover first took hold in 1987, after O. Ivar Lovaas published a study in which he provided 19 autistic preschoolers with more than 40 hours a week of one-on-one ABA therapy, and an equal number of children with 10 or fewer hours a week. Lovaas claimed that nearly half the children receiving the more frequent treatment recovered, while none in the control group did. Subsequent studies did not reproduce Lovaas’s findings, however, researchers did find that early, intensive behavioral therapy could improve language, cognition and social functioning at least somewhat in most children with ASD, and a lot in some.

This past year, another set of researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College published a study that tracked 85 children from their ASD diagnosis (at age 2) for nearly two decades and found that about 9% of them no longer met the criteria for the disorder. The findings showed that children in the study who successfully overcame autism had an ability to learn, based on their IQ. For instance, those who had a nonverbal I.Q. of less than 70 at age 2 all remained autistic. But among those with a nonverbal I.Q. of at least 70, one-quarter eventually became non-autistic, even though their symptoms at diagnosis were as severe as those of children with a comparable I.Q., who remained autistic.

Although the research is promising, most children with ASD don’t fully recover, as some are too severe or have too many symptoms. However, autistic children with better motor skills, better receptive language skills, and more willingness to imitate others tend to progress more swiftly, even if they don’t stop being autistic. Parental involvement — acting as a child’s advocate, pushing for services, working with the child at home — seems to correlate with more improvements in symptoms. Financial resources, no doubt, help too.

Many parents believe that needs-based programs such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid will be enough to take care of their family members with special needs when they are gone. This is a common misconception. SSI is the federal needs-based program that many special needs children and adults may be eligible for if they meet certain income limits. Many special needs children and adults may also get Medicaid to pay for hospital stays, doctor bills, prescription drugs, and other health costs. However, once the assets of a person with special needs exceeds $2,000, he or she is no longer eligible for SSI or Medicaid. There are also severe and very strict limits on how much income a person can make and still remain eligible for SSI.

Parents of those with special needs, including ASD, are tasked with planning for their children throughout their lifetimes, as many of them will outlive their parents but might not be able to support themselves and live independently. As a parent or guardian, you want to ensure that your child with special needs will remain financially secure even when you are no longer there to provide support. A Special Needs Trust is a vehicle that provides assets from which a disabled person can maintain his or her quality of life, while still remaining eligible for needs-based programs that will cover basic health and living expenses.

More than $13 billion a year is spent to care for individuals with ASD and other special needs. For the average affected family, this translates to $30K per year. Fortunately, there are many ways to plan for the long-term care of a disabled child. If you have a loved one who will likely need care for life, it’s important to provide legal protections for him or her. Farr Law Firm, P.C. can guide you through this process. Please make an appointment for a consultation by calling us at 703-691-1888 in Fairfax, 540-479-1435 in Fredericksburg, 301-519-8041 in Rockville, MD, or 202-587-2797 in Washington, DC.

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.