Chicago Leo Lytel was diagnosed with autism as a toddler. But by age 9 he had overcome the disorder.
His progress is part of a growing body of research that suggests at least 10 percent of children with autism can “recover” from it — most of them after undergoing years of intensive behavioral therapy.
Skeptics question the phenomenon, but University of Connecticut psychology professor Deborah Fein is among those convinced it’s real.
She presented research this week at an autism conference in Chicago that included 20 children who, according to rigorous analysis, got a correct diagnosis but years later were no longer considered autistic.
Among them was Leo, a boy in Washington, D.C., who once made no eye contact, who echoed words said to him and often spun around in circles — all classic autism symptoms. Now he is an articulate, social third-grader. His mother, Jayne Lytel, says his teachers call Leo a leader.
The study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, involves children ages 9 to 18.
Autism researcher Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer of the advocacy group Autism Speaks, called Fein’s research a breakthrough.
“Even though a number of us out in the clinical field have seen kids who appear to recover,” it has never been documented as thoroughly as Fein’s work, Dawson said.
“We’re at a very early stage in terms of understanding” the phenomenon, Dawson said.
Previous studies have suggested between 3 percent and 25 percent of autistic kids recover. Fein says her studies have shown the range is 10 percent to 20 percent.
But even after lots of therapy — often carefully designed educational and social activities with rewards — most autistic children remain autistic.
Recovery is “not a realistic expectation for the majority of kids,” but parents should know it can happen, Fein said.
Doubters say “either they really weren’t autistic to begin with ... or they’re still socially odd and obsessive, but they don’t exactly meet criteria” for autism, she said.
Fein said the children in her study “really were” autistic and now they’re “really not.”