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What Is the Prognosis for a Child with Autism?

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Updated January 24, 2011

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Question: What Is the Prognosis for a Child with Autism?
My son's teacher told me flat-out that my son will never be able to count. He won't be able to read or write. Instead, the focus is on teaching him to live independently: dressing himself, brushing his teeth, putting on his shoes. One day he might be able to live at a group home and, if he's lucky, hold down a basic job. I was hearing this for the first time. Could his teacher be correct?
Answer: The official name for autism spectrum disorders is "pervasive developmental disorders." Children with autism are described as having developmental "delays." While this may appear to be a euphemism for "developmental disabilities," that's only sometimes the case.

No one, including a teacher, knows how far a child with autism can progress. While it is more likely that a higher-functioning child will progress faster and further than a lower-functioning child, every child with autism grows and progresses. Many far exceed doctors' expectations. A significant percentage actually lose their official autism spectrum diagnosis. Others improve only slowly and to a limited degree - and still others improve quickly at first and then seem to hit a plateau, or develop issues (such as mental illness or a mood disorder) which inhibit ongoing improvement.

What's more, there is no "window of opportunity" for growth and development. Contrary to popular belief, children with autism don't suddenly shut down after age three or age five. In fact, adults with autism can benefit significantly from behavioral therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy. If your child is able to communicate - whether with words, cards, keyboards or sign - he or she has the tools to learn and develop.

Another important point for parents to consider is that people with autism often have different strengths and weaknesses than typically developing children. What that means is that even if your child never learns to read and write on grade level, he may have tremendous talents as a musician, an artist or a mathematician. He may be wonderful with animals, or have impressive technical skills.

While our American system of education stresses and relies upon interpersonal verbal skills, the world as a whole is much bigger than that. Your child may not be a terrific conversationalist when he grows up, but that doesn't imply that his future will be limited to stacking boxes. The key to your child's success as an adult, however, may depend more upon his parents' willingness to explore therapeutic and vocational options than on his teacher's ability to help him build typical verbal and social skills.

Bottom line, there is a 100% likelihood that your child will autism will grow and build skills - to at least some degree. The degree to which he will progress, however, will depend on many factors, some of which are in your control as a parent. In the case of a teacher who has already determined your child's life path, there's an easy fix: change teachers.

References

Interview with Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Director of the University of Washington Autism Center. January, 2007.

Dawson G, Toth K, Abbott R, Osterling J, Munson J, Estes A, Liaw J. Early social attention impairments in autism: social orienting, joint attention, and attention to distress.Dev Psychol. 2004 Mar;40 (2):271-83.

Dawson G, Zanolli K. Early intervention and brain plasticity in autism.Novartis Found Symp. 2003;251:266-74; discussion 274-80, 281-97

Matson JL. Determining treatment outcome in early intervention programs for autism spectrum disorders: A critical analysis of measurement issues in learning based interventions.

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