Some children diagnosed as autistic seem to ‘grow out of it’ as they get older, according to a new National Institutes of Health study — adding to evidence that autism may not be a mental health issue at all.
Deborah Fein and other University of Connecticut researchers studied 34 kids who had been diagnosed with autism in early childhood but went on to function as well non-autistic peers. The once autistic children — now ages 8 to 21 — showed no problems with language, social interaction, communication or facial recognition.
According to the BBC, “the researchers went back and checked the accuracy of the children’s original diagnosis, but found no reason to suspect that they had been inaccurate.” It’s possible these children learned to compensate for autism-related problems, they say. Or it may be that some children can genuinely “outgrow” autism.
Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said: “Although the diagnosis of autism is not usually lost over time, the findings suggest that there is a very wide range of possible outcomes.”
One possible explanation lies in very new research linking autism to autoimmune disorders.
Autoimmune disorders are caused by inappropriate immune system responses to normal substances or tissue in the body; essentially, the immune system mistakes these things for invaders and goes on attack against its own cells.Some of the more well-known autoimmune disorders include celiac disease, type-1 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, lupus, eczema, psoriasis, inflammatory bowel disease, alopecia and rheumatoid arthritis. Multiple schlerosis, narcolepsy, restless leg syndrome and schizophrenia are suspected to be autoimmune disorders.
Autism may have more in common with these disorders than psychiatric or neurological conditions along the lines of, say, depression or dissociative identity disorder or sociopathy. According to author Moises Velasquez-Manoff, “a subset of autism — perhaps one-third, and very likely more — looks like a type of inflammatory disease” that begins in the womb.
It starts with what scientists call immune dysregulation. Ideally, your immune system should operate like an enlightened action hero, meting out inflammation precisely, accurately and with deadly force when necessary, but then quickly returning to a Zen-like calm. Doing so requires an optimal balance of pro- and anti-inflammatory muscle.
In autistic individuals, the immune system fails at this balancing act. Inflammatory signals dominate. Anti-inflammatory ones are inadequate. A state of chronic activation prevails. And the more skewed toward inflammation, the more acute the autistic symptoms.
Nowhere are the consequences of this dysregulation more evident than in the autistic brain. Spidery cells that help maintain neurons — called astroglia and microglia — are enlarged from chronic activation. Pro-inflammatory signaling molecules abound. Genes involved in inflammation are switched on.
These findings are important for many reasons, but perhaps the most noteworthy is that they provide evidence of an abnormal, continuing biological process. That means that there is finally a therapeutic target for a disorder defined by behavioral criteria like social impairments, difficulty communicating and repetitive behaviors.