Behind the Cover Story: Ruth Padawer on Autistic Children Who Shed Their Symptoms (The New York Times)

For RACHEL NOLAN, publicado en The New York Times

Ruth Padawer, a contributing writer for the magazine, is the author of this week’s cover story about children who have recovered from autism. Her previous article for the magazine was about gender-fluid children.

How did you first hear about these cases of reversed autism?

I read about the initial study, by Deborah Fein, a clinical neuropsychologist who teaches at the University of Connecticut, in the health section of The New York Times in early 2013. My editor encouraged me to see if I could find a magazine article in that. What we were most curious about was what the experience was like for these kids to be autistic and then not to be autistic. That’s a perspective that few people have. I really appreciated their insights.

In the article, you mention supposed cures for autism that have been promoted on the Internet — including vitamin shots, nutritional supplements and special diets. What convinced the scientists, and you, that this was different?

Well, claims that these treatments can “cure” autism or its core symptoms have not been substantiated by rigorous scientific investigations. Perhaps some of these treatments help with secondary symptoms; for example, children with autism may be more troubled by gastrointestinal problems, and maybe some of the alternative approaches help with that. And when someone feels better physically, they’re likely more able to function in other ways, too. But there’s no evidence yet that those alternative approaches treat autism’s core symptoms, the ones defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as the basis for the diagnosis.

Fein’s study didn’t closely examine those alternative treatments, but to the extent she looked at them, she found no association between the use of those alternative treatments and the likelihood of losing autism symptoms. Kids who lost their autism symptoms weren’t any more likely to have used supplements than kids who remained autistic, and frankly, they were less likely to have tried special diets. In other words it seems the treatments don’t correlate with the loss of autism symptoms. By comparison, children who stopped being autistic were far more likely to have received early behavioral therapy than those who remained autistic. Remember, however, that these are just correlations, not proven causalities. This study wasn’t designed to draw conclusions about causality.

Did any of your sources mention an effort to make these therapies more accessible to people who cannot afford access to a behavioral expert? By creating online tutorials to teach the basic principles, for example?

More states and school districts now provide those therapies, though it certainly remains true that people with more financial resources have far more options. A few years ago, Alan Zarembo at The Los Angeles Times produced a magnificent series on that inequality.

So many parents with autistic children are desperate to try anything that might help. Were you concerned that your article might lead many to try an expensive and time-consuming therapy that may not work for many?

Yes! Part of what many parents find so frustrating is that scientists still don’t know what makes autism’s core symptoms go away. There is, however, good evidence that early, intensive behavioral interventions help many autistic children. There are several types of behavioral models offered now; it’s still unclear which of those — or what element in them — is most effective.

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