What is regressive autism?

Your child has been developing typically. You’ve been seeing the doctor regularly, and have been monitoring their development without concern. They’ve always pointed to things of interest, answered to the sound of their name, and have made eye contact, all this time.

But suddenly, things seem to have changed.

Their verbal and nonverbal communication skills have slowed. So have their social skills. In fact, you’re concerned that their skills aren’t just slowing down – it’s like they’ve been lost almost altogether.

What’s going on?

When an otherwise typically developing child suddenly seems to lose such skills, as well as exhibiting behaviors typically associated with autism spectrum disorder, it could mean the development of a condition called regressive autism. Despite earlier typical development, a child with regressive autism loses their communication and social skills abilities and begins to follow a pattern of neurological development that’s present in kids with autism spectrum disorder.

Sometimes referred to as acquired autistic syndrome, or setback-type autism, regressive autism occurs in about 13 to 48% of autism diagnoses. Once upon a time regressive autism was considered rare, an exception, but today, that’s no longer the case.

Regressive autism has been reported to start between 15 and 30 months of age, but the average age when skill decline is noted and diagnosed as regressive autism is approximately 19 months of age, or just shy of two years old.

Some of what parents can look out for that may be symptomatic of regressive autism include the child no longer responding to their own name, avoiding eye contact, resisting physical contact, and refusal or inability to point to items of interest. The child may repeat words and phrases they hear others say (echolalia), reverse the use of pronouns (they may say “you” instead of “I”), and might be challenged with understanding how they feel, as well as how others might be feeling.

The child with regressive autism may stim – they may flap their hands, rock, or spin around. They may be oversensitive to certain smells, textures, sights, and sounds. They may be suddenly impulsive, or have atypical phobias and elevated levels of anxiety. They may be hyperactive, become obsessed with certain interests, or act impulsively without awareness of danger or risk.

To diagnose a child with regressive autism, it typically takes a multidisciplinary team of professionals, including a pediatrician, a psychiatrist or psychologist, and a speech pathologist. Treatment plans will be readily available, and will include a variety of educational and behavioral therapies designed specifically for autism spectrum disorder.

Applied behavioral analysis, or ABA, is a highly effective therapy for regressive autism, as it focuses on changing unwanted behaviors while reinforcing more desirable behaviors. ABA therapy is designed to help the child build and strengthen their communication and social skills, including reducing tantrums, improving conversation skills, understanding social cues and body language, and following directions. ABA also helps the child learn and strength basic pre-academic and academic skills.

Through small steps, ABA helps the child with autism – regressive or otherwise – thrive while introducing changes in how they function. Through play, direct instructions, adaptive skills training and other activities, as well as parent guidance, the child with regressive autism is provided an opportunity to learn and employ positive behaviors.

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