Regressive autism is a condition where an otherwise typically developing child experiences a sudden and rapid loss of communication and social skills and starts exhibiting behaviors associated with autism.
Continue reading to find out more about regressive autism, its signs and symptoms, and available treatments.
What Is Regressive Autism?
Regressive autism occurs when a child who seems to develop typically all of a sudden starts losing communication abilities, social skills, or both. After that, the child continues to follow the standard pattern of autistic neurological development. The condition is also known as autism with regression, autistic regression, setback-type autism, and acquired autistic syndrome.
How common is regressive autism?
Regressive autism was for many years considered being a rare occurrence and classified as a subtype of autism. However, recent studies confirm that anywhere from 13 to 48 percent of autism diagnoses are of the regressive type, depending on how regression is defined. Today, this condition is no longer considered an exception, and most researchers believe that there is no clear divide between early onset and regression when it comes to autism.
Many children with regressive autism show some less apparent symptoms of the condition even before they start losing language and social skills. In fact, autism is thought to have a range of different onset patterns, including:
- Early onset with early developmental delays but no subsequent loss of skills
- Ordinary regression with no apparent delays before a skill loss
- Regression where early delays are followed by loss of skills, and
- Plateau where there is a failure to learn new skills, but no apparent early delays or later skill losses.
What Is the Age When Regressive Autism Starts?
Regressive autism typically starts between the ages of 15 and 30 months. The average age at which a decline in skills is observed in children diagnosed with regressive autism is 19 months.
What are the Signs of Regressive Autism in a Child?
The loss of verbal and nonverbal communication and social skills in an otherwise typically developing child can be slow or rapid. It is usually followed by a lengthy period of stagnation in skill development.
The most common early signs of regressive autism in children include:
- Not responding when their name is called
- Echolalia or the tendency to repeat words and phrases uttered by others
- Giving unrelated answers when asked questions
- Reversing the use of pronouns and using “you” instead of “I”
- Inability to point at objects or things of interest
- Low to zero social skills
- Avoiding eye contact and physical contact
- Failure to understand their own and other people’s feelings.
In addition, children with regressive autism may exhibit other signs and symptoms typical of autism spectrum disorder, such as:
- Flapping hands, spinning in circles, and rocking the body
- Strong emotional reactions to changes in daily activities and routines
- Over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to sounds, smell, taste, and touch
- Extreme anxiety and phobias
- Impulsivity or acting without thinking
- Extremely active or hyperactive behavior
- Unusual eating and sleeping habits including sleep regression
- Always playing with toys in the same way
- A tendency to line up toys and other objects
- Interest in specific parts of objects, such as the wheels of toy cars
- Obsessive and unusual interests and behaviors.
How to Diagnose a Child With Regressive Autism?
Specialists and health professionals will rely on a variety of tools to test whether your child has autism spectrum disorder.
Multidisciplinary assessment teams typically consist of a psychologist, a speech pathologist, as well as a pediatrician or child psychiatrist. After observing how your child plays and interacts with others, reviewing your child’s developmental history, and conducting interviews with the family, they will make a diagnosis.
Once your child is diagnosed with regressive autism, specialists will help you identify the most suitable treatment plan.
Can Regressive Autism Be Reversed?
Although full recovery from autism may not be possible, appropriate therapy can provide autistic children with the tools to function independently and significantly improve their condition.
It is crucial that a child with regressive autism receives the proper diagnosis early on. The earlier treatment begins, the better outcomes can be achieved, reducing and even eliminating some of the symptoms. Because every child with autism spectrum disorder is different, progress will vary from one child to another.
Therapies for Children with Regressive Autism
Experts recommend the use of various behavioral and educational therapies as effective treatments for autistic children, including those diagnosed with regressive autism. Because no two individuals with autism are alike, these therapies usually provide targeted treatments based on your child’s individual needs.
Applied behavioral analysis (ABA)
Applied behavior analysis is a form of behavioral therapy that focuses on changing unwanted behaviors while reinforcing desirable ones. It is one of the most successful interventions for helping children with autism learn desired behaviors. With an over 90 percent improvement rate, ABA therapy is currently the most effective form of autism treatment.
This type of therapy is used to build and strengthen social and communication skills in children with autism spectrum disorder such as:
- Following directions
- Understanding social cues like facial expressions and body language
- Improving social skills, including initiating conversations and responding to questions
- Reducing problematic behaviors like tantrums, and
- Acquiring basic academic and pre-academic skills.
ABA therapy breaks down each of the essential skills into small, concrete steps. It then builds toward more significant changes in functioning and independence levels. An ABA therapy session typically consists of a combination of play, direct instructions, various activities, adaptive skills training, and parent guidance.
Applied behavioral analysis therapy uses positive reinforcement in the form of rewards and other incentives. When a desirable behavior is followed by a motivator, like a special toy or activity, children are more likely to repeat the action. Over time, this method can encourage positive behavioral changes in children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
Most children with autism spectrum disorder have at least some degree of sensory processing dysfunction like over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to light, sound, smell, taste, or touch. In fact, sensory issues are among the principal symptoms of autism. They are also believed to be the underlying reason for common autistic behaviors such as rocking, spinning, and hand-flapping.
Sensory integration therapy focuses on normalizing three senses: vestibular (the sense of motion and balance), tactile (the sense of touch), and proprioception (the sense of movement). Sensory integration sessions include activities that stimulate sensory responses, and in particular those related to balance and physical movement such as swinging, bouncing, or climbing. This method helps autistic children learn how to use all their senses together and how to interpret and use sensory information more effectively.
Sensory integration therapy is designed to be part of more comprehensive programs for children with autism, including speech therapy, behavioral therapy, and educational therapy. It is typically provided by an occupational therapist.
Children on the autism spectrum usually have a number of communication and speech-related challenges. While some autistic children are not able to speak at all, others have difficulties maintaining a conversation or understanding body language and facial expressions when talking with others. Speech therapy helps improve verbal, nonverbal, and social communication and at the same time teaches children with autism how to communicate in more functional ways.
Speech therapy is done by a speech-language pathologist (SLP). A speech therapy program starts with an evaluation of your child’s strengths and weaknesses related to communication. Based on this assessment, the speech-language pathologist will set a goal for the therapy. Some skills that your child may work on include:
- Strengthening the mouth, jaw, and neck muscles
- Learning how to make clearer speech sounds
- Matching emotions with the correct facial expression
- Leaning nonverbal skills and body language
- Modulating the tone of voice
- Responding to questions
- Matching a picture with its meaning.
Autistic children with severe language problems may find it easier to use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems. In this case, speech therapy will particularly focus on teaching communication through either picture exchange communication systems (PECS), sign language, or speech output devices such as DynaVox.
Visual problems are common in children with autism and include issues such as:
- Lack of eye contact
- Staring at spinning objects or light
- Fleeting peripheral glances
- Side viewing
- Eye movement disorders
- Crossed eyes
- Hypersensitive vision
- Light sensitivity
- Visual stimming, for example, flapping fingers in front of eyes
- Visual defensiveness or avoiding contact with specific visual input like bright lights.
The goal of vision treatment is to help autistic children organize their visual space, improve eye coordination and enhance visual information processing. Achieving these goals can help the child feel less overwhelmed by visual stimuli and interact more easily with its environment.
Vision training is typically done by a vision therapist. It involves eye exercises and the use of ambient prism lenses that are worn in standard eyeglass frames, but feature wedge prism lenses instead of regular refractive ones. This type of therapy may lessen or totally eliminate many of the issues related to vision. Besides, the treatment is also proven to be beneficial for improving posture, head-tilt, spatial awareness, and coordination in children with autism.
Auditory integration training (AIT)
Atypical sensory experience is one of the common symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. Compared to their neurotypical peers, children with autism are more likely to have unusual sensory responses, such as adverse reactions or indifference to sensations, that may cause discomfort or confusion.
Auditory integration training aims to reduce sensitivity to sounds and other issues with processing sounds in autistic children. It has been proven to reduce distortions in hearing, extremely sensitive hearing, and irregularities in how sounds are processed. Some practitioners believe that auditory integration training also helps improve speech and language difficulties in children with autism.
The Berard method of auditory integration training is an intervention designed to correct or improve disruptions in the brain and body system that interfere with a child’s ability to process information correctly. The therapy starts by presenting familiar sounds. Over time, more challenging sounds, usually those with a high or low frequency, are introduced. This allows children to slowly get used to the sounds until they no longer represent a problem.
Several other types of sound therapy have documented benefits for children with autism:
The Tomatis approach
This therapy is designed to improve listening, speech, and communication skills in autistic children, in addition to strengthening balance and coordination skills. Your child will be using headphones to listen to electronically modiﬁed music and other sounds in order to exercise the muscles in the ear and stimulate connections between the ear and the brain.
The Samonas Sound Therapy (SST)
During the Samonas sound therapy, therapeutic music provides direct stimulation to the central nervous system. It trains the auditory system to process the full range of sounds without distortion, hypersensitivity, or frequency loss.
The Listening Program (TLP)
This auditory intervention program is a music-based therapy that uses psychoacoustically modified classical music to provide auditory stimulation and improve brain functioning. It is an effective stand-alone intervention, but it can also be successfully integrated with other treatments such as ABA, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and neurodevelopmental programs.
At the core of all types of auditory training is strengthening the foundation of a child’s neurological functioning, including auditory processing and attention. Although it is possible to find some approved Berard AIT practitioners, no formal qualification is necessary for providing auditory integration training. In practice, the therapy is mostly offered by speech and language pathologists or occupational therapists.
Tools for Parents to Cope With Regressive Autism
While it is a rewarding experience, caring for a child with autism can be extremely challenging, both physically and emotionally. Here are some resources that will help you and your family cope after your child is diagnosed with regressive autism:
- Autism parent support groups are some of the best sources of support and information about caring for children with autism.
- MyAutismTeam is a social network for parents of children with autism spectrum disorder. Here you can connect with other parents, receive emotional support, and get practical advice and insights on managing autism.
- National Autism Association (NAA) is a parent-run non-profit organization with 1.6 million online members. It offers information on issues related to regressive autism, severe autism, autism safety, autism abuse, and crisis prevention. The organization also provides lots of valuable resources and safety tips, as well as downloadable guides and toolkits for parents of autistic children.
- Autism Speaks is the largest autism organization in the country that works to promote awareness about the condition. It provides comprehensive information on all aspects of autism, from signs and symptoms to diagnoses and treatments.
- Autism Speaks Sibling’s Guide to Autism and Sibling Support Page from Organization for Autism Research (OAR) are useful sources of information for children whose siblings are diagnosed with autism.
- Social stories can help children with autism spectrum disorder improve their communication and social skills. Numerous social story templates are available for free download.
- Language Therapy for Children with Autism is one of the most popular autism apps. It uses the Mental Imagery Therapy for Autism (MITA) approach to help children with autism reach language development milestones and speak confidently.
- Other useful apps for parents of autistic children include Birdhouse for Autism, AutiSpark, and Proloquo2Go.