Autism study may offer new hope

Published: Friday, March 20 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Leeann Whiffen watches Clay, her son, do gymnastics. Whiffen credits early intervention with helping her son. A study of adult Utahns with autism may offer parents hope.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

In a study that researchers consider a glimmer of hope in unraveling the mysteries of autism, Utahns with the brain disorder seem to fare better through life than many of their counterparts elsewhere in similar studies.

A report released online Wednesday by the Journal of Autism Research shows that a follow-up study by University of Utah psychiatry researchers of 41 Utahns diagnosed with an autism disorder 20 years ago shows that they have generally been more independent and more social, and a few even showed increases in IQs.

Despite the narrow focus of the study and no clear reasons why, for parents with children diagnosed with the brain disorder now, it adds new data about how autistic kids fare as adults.

"It gives a lot of hope for younger people with autism and average-range IQs," said Megan A. Farley, lead author and a research associate in the Department of Psychiatry at the U. School of Medicine. "This is an amazing group of people who, in many cases, did a lot more than their parents were told they would ever do."

Drawing from a group of 241 children diagnosed with the brain disorder in the mid-1980s, Farley and fellow researchers tracked the participants' overall social outcome by their ability to maintain paid employment, the existence of meaningful social relationships and their degree of independence in daily life. An individual's overall social outcome was assigned to one of five categories: very good, good, fair, poor and very poor.

Researchers found that 24 percent of the participants had a very good social outcome; 24 percent had a good outcome; 34 percent had a fair outcome; and 17 percent were rated in the poor social-outcome category. No one's social outcome fell into the very poor category.

About half of the study participants were employed in full- or part-time competitive jobs. Six were living independently, including three who owned homes. Three were married with children, and one person also was newly engaged to be married. Eleven of the participants have driver's licenses, and the same number had a higher IQ than when assessed 20 years earlier.

"Adults with autism haven't received the attention from researchers that children have, but the few studies that have been done on similar groups showed 15 percent to 30 percent having good outcomes, compared to the 50 percent in our study," Farley said. "One early Canadian study showed similar results to ours, but other studies have had fewer people living and working independently as adults."

Reasons why the group fared better, just like the reasons why a child gets the brain disorder, are unknown. But Farley said a likely factor in the Utah group faring better than most is the growth of in-home early intervention and training, as well as the strong family networks here.

The average age of participants in the original study was 7, while the average age in the follow-up study was 32. Participants in the current study had an average childhood non-verbal IQ of at least 70.

About half of the participants included in the 1983 and 1988 statewide survey by the U. and the University of California Los Angeles could not live or work independently. The majority still live with their parents, although many of them had a high level of independence in their daily activities, according to the report.

Social isolation is a serious problem for that group, as well, the report states, with 44 percent of them having never dated. In addition, 60 percent of the study participants, even some of those who had achieved independent living and working, were prone to anxiety and mood disorders and the constant worry about a social stigma attached to autism. Also, the IQ of eight participants declined since they first were evaluated 20 years ago.

Leeann Whiffen, the mother of a son once diagnosed as autistic and a spokeswoman for the Utah Autism Coalition, told the Deseret News on Wednesday that the study results provide "cautious hope" to many families struggling to care for children who have autism.

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