Regression marks one in five autism cases, large study finds

In some children with autism, normal development stalls, often around age 2, and they start to lose many of the communication and social skills they had already mastered. The first large epidemiological study of this phenomenon, called regression, reveals that it occurs in at least 20 percent of children with autism1.

The new work, published in the July/August issue of the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, also shows that regression can appear long after the toddler years.

A better understanding of regression could help researchers predict how children will fare over time and provide clues to autism’s biological basis. But despite decades of research, scientists continue to debate how prevalent regression is and even what it is.

The data come from the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring network, which estimates autism prevalence in the U.S. The network “lets us gain information from much bigger samples than would be otherwise possible,” says lead researcher Catherine Bradley, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.

Previous estimates have generally relied on interviews of families from a small number of autism clinics and range from 20 to 30 percent. The new study examined medical and education records of children with autism from the entire eastern half of South Carolina.

The study sample is fairly representative of the population as a whole, saysAudrey Thurm, a clinical psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, who was not involved in the work. “It uses a very big, more epidemiologically based sample,” she says. “This is a nice addition.”

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