Autism Recovery Possible?

red flowers

[ More Articles | Follow-up to Beyond Cure Autism ]

I was chatting with the parent of a boy with autism who was also the founder of an autism center. As we chatted about my autism work, he mentioned to me that "a cancer patient can lose their diagnosis by taking a medical test to confirm that they no longer have cancer. Why can't a person with autism do the same too?" Unsurprisingly, he is a firm believer in autism recovery and looked upon me as a fine example of someone who has recovered.

I tend to agree with him. Autism recovery still remains a controversial topic with many autism experts believing that it is impossible. Although I prefer not to get involved in this aspect of autism politics, I would like to explore what autism recovery would look like assuming that it is possible. [Read the news: Some children 'grow out of' autism]

In other words, if a person has recovered from autism, what is the criteria that we can use to define it? Other than no longer meeting the DSM-IV or DSM-5 criteria used to diagnose autism, I propose following additional criteria:

1) Must have underwent the same stages of development as a typical child, even though it may be out of sequence or delayed. In other words, the person must have developed both the minimal social and emotional maturity expected of his or her age group.

2) Must instinctively understand and use social skills and communications to their advantage, automatically expressing a desire to conform to the group and obtaining pleasure from connecting with those they like. In other words, they are not pretending to be normal. They are simply behaving normally.

3) No longer requires any assistance for independent living, employment, romance, financial management and other abilities needed to function in society. In other words, he can do pretty much what everyone else can do.


According to the above criteria, I must conclude that I have recovered. However, I could only state that I have adapted to NeuroTypical life. I am not an autism professional and I could not diagnose or un-diagnose myself.

1) Before 2003, I felt very simple pure emotions of happiness, anger, sadness, anxiety and calmness. As I got in touch with my emotions between 2003 to 2006, I went through a stage where I felt very strong emotions that felt like uncontrollable wild horses. This cumulating in the realization of human individuality and the acceptance of my own life on Planet Earth. After that, my emotions mellowed. I began to feel conflicting emotions such as gratefulness and anger towards the same person at the same time. In 2011, I started intuiting the character of the people I interact with, such as if they dislike me, are prone to anger or are reliable. The latest development seemed to indicate that I have completed the developmental stages expected of a typical adult.

2) I enjoy social contact with some people, and have some experience with romance. I would still prefer to be alone, but that is because I have an introverted personality. I instinctively know that some things should be and should not be said, even if I have never encountered them before. While my social skills are far from excellent, but they are certainly passable for most situations.

3) I have worked in a demanding job requiring multi-tasking, customer service and managerial skills for 1.5 years without revealing my diagnosis. I could not claim to have performed very well, and received a lot of guidance from my colleagues, but my bosses and colleagues wanted me to stay. I took on that job as a challenge to myself to see if I can really blend into the typical working world. Having achieved success, I left when I was headhunted to work in another job doing psychometric testing.

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Limitations of recovery

There is no question that a recovered person may still experience side effects from his or her earlier condition, either due to the condition itself or the treatment used. For instance, someone who has recovered from myopia using LASIK may suffer from poor night vision and dry eyes, while someone who has recovered from polio may walk with a crippling gait. Likewise, someone who has recovered from autism may still have some degree of social handicaps and ADHD tendencies. However, this does not invalidate the success of the recovery.

There are some parents who claim that their children have recovered, but it is obvious that these children do not meet all the 3 criteria. I know of a Taiwanese professor whose "recovered" son does not understand the intent of his mother asking him to get a cloth to wipe (the water spilled on) the table - he started by wiping the dry areas. Another of son of hers felt uncomfortable with strangers and kept going back to "hide" in his room. She was quite angry that I pointed out those unresolved issues. [I was too blunt back then.] These parents could not face the cold, hard reality that their children are far from recovery.

The fact that a child can follow instructions like a robot or memorize scripts like an actor in order to socialize does not mean that he has recovered. The fact that the child does not throw any more temper tantrums or misbehaves in public does not mean recovery. The fact that a child no longer fits the DSM-IV criteria still does not mean recovery to me. Even an adult who has a steady job, a marriage and a respected doctorate may not have recovered. There is no way one could recover from autism by memorizing social rules and creating a huge database what to do for every given social situation.

With true recovery comes the ability to grasp the concepts of individuality and intent intuitively, and socialize without stress and effort. It requires the exercise of the will through the effort of making difficult choices. It requires the acceptance and expression of emotions. When the recovery process is completed, even autism professionals will no longer be able to distinguish a recovered individual from a typical person.


What is the best bet for recovery?

Two words - early intervention. The earlier the better, because the child would have the least delay in picking up social and executive skills. I have had 2 decades of social skills to catch up on due to my late emergence from autism. For specific therapies, consider those that can help to develop instincts for children with autism.

For those Aspies who set their hopes on Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) or the Emotional Freedom Techniques, I can tell you from personal experience that these are ineffective. There are better ways to spend your money than to pay for those overpriced workshops. Becoming an expert body language reader will not help you gain access to your instincts either. There is no substitute for getting in touch with your emotions and consciously defining your own character.


What happened to those who recovered?

I have been contacted by two people who claimed to have recovered from autism spontaneously. One of them is a young lady from England who spontaneously recovered at age 16. The lady was not taken seriously when she wrote to some autism professionals about her recovery.

I speculate that there may be a few thousand people in the world who have recovered by their own effort from autism. They live relatively satisfying lives in contrast to their counterparts who often suffer from depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue and a lack of fulfillment. They blend silently into mainstream society and only the close family members and childhood friends have any idea what they experienced.

It will not be in their interest for them to disclose their past experiences with autism. Think about it. Why cause insurance companies reject to reject their applications, potential employers and lovers to shy away while making friends awkward or doubtful of their past diagnosis? Why bother to convince a skeptical autism professional community who does not believe in such a phenomena? Why not just focus on a lucrative career which makes use of the residual autism traits, such as programming, engineering and teaching graduate students?


Finally, I suggest that readers read this passage from an article in Forbes about the experience of Danielle Feerst if they have doubts on spontaneous recovery.

I was in a coma for a few days, and at some point during that coma, I died briefly – for a total of about 15 minutes. I came back to life, woke up, and asked the nurse “Where am I?” because, despite the cliché, it was what I wanted to know first. The doctor was relieved too, because my question meant that I was at least roughly intact, mentally speaking.

As it turned out, I was alive, yes, but not everything was normal. Over the next several weeks, I noticed that something odd had happened to my mental processes. The world – or at least the people in it – had become distant and strange for me.

I couldn’t figure out affect – intent – in other people. Their words seemed hollow. I couldn’t tell what they were thinking, or feeling. I knew I should be able to tell what was going on with other people, but I couldn’t. Everyone around me seemed like automatons, robots, without the affect I was used to from before the accident. Something in me had switched off, I had no idea what, and it meant that people were suddenly complete mysteries to me. It was terrifying.

So I began to study body language consciously, in a deliberate and indeed panicked attempt to figure out what people were feeling, what their intent was, what they actually meant. I focused obsessively on gesture, facial expressions, posture, the ways people revealed tension in their arms and shoulders, the way they moved closer or further away from each other, their smiles and frowns – everything, in short, that I could see that might tell me something about what they were feeling.

And then, after a couple of months of agonized and largely unsuccessful efforts to read people, efforts that were making me more and more anxious and depressed, something switched on again. The part of my brain that read other people effortlessly, more or less, switched back on as mysteriously as it had switched off.


Is autism / Asperger's a culture rather than a disorder?

I recognize that people with autism have their own culture, which is just as worthy of respect as other cultures. I also take the pragmatic view that autism is a disorder as far as the majority of parents of autistics and autism professionals are concerned.

While not everyone agrees that autism is a disease, we can definitely agree that it is a handicap as long as our world is dominated by NeuroTypicals. Since I would like to help work with the rest of Humanity to make the world a better place, this is a handicap that I can definitely do without.

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