Around one percent of the population has an autism spectrum disorder, with estimates ranging from one in 150 to one in 70.
While people differ in the range and severity of their symptoms, common features include difficulties with communication and social interaction, restrictive and repetitive behaviours and interests, and sensory sensitivities.
According to a 2017 Autism report, autism is most prevalent among children aged five to 14.
But while children are more likely to have a diagnosis of autism than adults, this doesn’t mean children “grow out” of autism.
Why are rates higher among children?
There are a number of reasons why the prevalence of autism is higher among school-aged children than adults, starting with the measurement.
“Prevalence” refers to the rate of diagnosis and/or self-reports, not the rate of actually having autism. As autism is a lifelong condition, it’s more likely the rates of actually having autism are stable across adults and children.
Diagnostic techniques and awareness of autism have improved dramatically in recent times. Many autistic adults would not have been given a formal diagnosis, but rather misdiagnosed or just seen as “weird”.
Some children lose their diagnosis
Autism is a lifelong condition. However, a small number of studies suggest a minority of children may “lose” their autism diagnosis.
The most common reason was “new information”, such as being diagnosed with another developmental, learning, emotional, or mental health condition.
A recent study in the Journal of Child Neurology examined the records of 569 children diagnosed with autism between 2003 and 2013. It found seven percent no longer met the diagnostic criteria.
However, most were diagnosed with another behaviour disorder (such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) or a mental health condition (such as anxiety disorder).
Just three children out of 569 did not “warrant” any alternative diagnosis.
So, a very very small number of children lose their diagnosis and appear to function normally. But these small-scale studies don’t have the capacity to differentiate between “growing out of” and “learning to mask” autism-related behaviours.
The diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM-5) used to classify mental health disorders states symptoms of autism start early and continue throughout life, though adults may be able to “mask” their symptoms – at least in some situations.
One of the unexpected findings of the 2014 study of people who lost their autism diagnosis is they tended to have high IQs. The researchers suggest high levels of cognition allowed this group of autistic people to identify and compensate for their social differences.
Many autistic people learn to mask their behaviours and thought patterns from a young age; and this is particularly common with girls. They learn that to fit in and be accepted by their peers they need to act and speak like neurotypical people.
Masking is physically and emotionally draining, and leads to a range of negative outcomes such as exhaustion, burnout, anxiety, and depression – as well as negative self-perception and low self-esteem.
Why are these myths so harmful?
Many parents struggle with their child’s diagnosis of autism, as they face the realisation their child’s life may be very different from the one they imagined.
The myth that children can grow out of autism – if their parents do a good enough job of educating or changing them – is harmful for the whole family.
It can prevent parents from seeing and accepting their child as the wonderful human being they are and recognising their strengths.
Sadly, it can also lead to a lifetime of the autistic person perceiving themselves to be a failed neurotypical person rather than a successful autistic person.
Australia, like many countries, has made great strides in the provision of educational supports for these students in primary and secondary school. Then we stop.
Autistic children don’t grow into neurotypical adults, they grow into autistic adults who are under-serviced, isolated and stigmatised.
Until our employers, educational institutions, governments and communities fully understand this, we will continue to fail to provide them with appropriate educational and employment opportunities.
So, will your child grow out of their autism? Probably not, but with the right support, encouragement and understanding they might grow into it.