Do symptoms of Autism change over time?

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Can Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) change as a child grows up? Why is it that some children with ASD improve over time? What factors can possibly influence the severity of their symptoms of Autism over time?

Long-term studies have followed children with ASD through the course of their lives, some up to two decades. They help answer the questions above, though not completely. These types of studies can be expensive. They also require a lot of effort on both the part of the researchers and the family. Hence, the data is limited.

Still, they allow for some understanding on the topic and that is what we will be discussing on today’s blog. These studies are important in case changes in therapy and care may be required as our special needs children grow.

What the results tell us

The following studies used the approach of shared characteristics to divide children on the spectrum into four groups.

One study found that a small percentage of children (2-15 years old) who improved were noted to have high verbal intelligence quotients in the beginning. This result is consistent with other studies that suggest IQ and language skills can predict a child’s outcome when they reach a certain age.

Another group consisting of 37 children (4-7 years old) with average IQ found that those with high executive functioning skills (memory, adaptable thinking, and self-control) eventually showed a strong theory of mind, or the ability to understand other people’s different intentions, desires, and beliefs. Both skills develop in children as early as 3 years old.

Children with Asperger’s

One other study followed children with Asperger’s. This type of autism was considered to be on the high-functioning end of the spectrum. It suggested that building theory of mind skills early in life helped to improve poor language skills over time.

A different but also long-term study amongst children from 18 to 33 months of age showed something interesting. Those with sensory sensitivities as toddlers were more likely to develop symptoms of anxiety as preschoolers.

How gender and hormones factor in

Another study showed that girls and boys differ in their manifestations of symptoms of Autism as they age. Girls tended to show better results in social, language, and cognitive skills than boys during early childhood.

Some experts say this is due to girls tending to hide their symptoms in social situations. This is called camouflaging. They do it more than boys. This coping strategy has been found to be more prevalent in females than males, who have ASD, and in different points of life, including adulthood.

Hormones may also play a role in symptoms of Autism and how they vary over time. Chemical imbalances in the brain cause deficiencies in social skills that are the most noticeable symptoms in children with ASD. One such hormone, called vasopressin, known to regulate blood pressure, may affect social behavior. 

A hormone called vasopressin

A study found that children with ASD who struggled with theory of mind were found to have low levels of vasopressin. However, the study stressed that just because there is a link, it doesn’t prove a cause-and-effect relationship between the two.

A different study, however, tested 30 children with ASD aged 6 to 12, by giving them nasal sprays of vasopressin to use over the course of four weeks. Half were given placebos and the other half the actual hormone. At the start of the study, the children’s social skills were assessed through standard questionnaires answered by parents, a different standardized testing used by doctors, and a test the children answered themselves, assessing people’s facial expressions.

The results showed that those that received the nasal spray with the actual hormone showed great improvement in their social skills after four weeks, compared to those that received the placebo. The children whose social skills tested higher at the start of the study showed greater improvement after receiving the vasopressin nasal spray.

The role of parents

Children whose parents were more involved with their treatment early on were found to have developed better verbal skills, another study finds

The study stresses the importance of parental engagement in the early years for children with ASD. This doesn’t mean that they should be blamed if their children’s developments don’t improve. 

Therapists and other special needs specialists are a great help to parents in learning how to support their child with ASD. They can teach parents about Applied Behavior Analysis and other techniques. This will help their children develop important skills so they can grow to live a full life.

If you or someone you know has a special needs child and wants help and support, contact me! My comprehensive online course helps you develop strategies to become the best support for your child. Contact me today for an appointment. 

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