Study finds many children with autism improve social skills over time

Monday, January 24, 2011 | 11:05 p.m. CST; updated 3:53 p.m. CST, Tuesday, January 25, 2011

COLUMBIA — A clinical child psychologist has found that many children with autism gain more verbal and social skills over time. 

Catherine Lord, who is the head of the University of Michigan’s Autism and Communication Disorder Center, said that while some previous studies stated 50 percent of 9-year-old children with autism were mostly nonverbal, her study found that 14 percent were nonverbal. Lord presented the findings of her study Monday night at a lecture at MU.

Signs of Autism

According to the Mayo Clinic,  some signs of autism include:

Social skills

  • Fails to respond to his or her name.
  • Has poor eye contact.
  • Resists cuddling and holding.
  • Appears unaware of others' feelings.
  • Seems to prefer playing alone.


  • Starts talking later than age 2, and has other developmental delays by 30 months.
  • Speaks with an abnormal tone or rhythm.
  • Can't start or continue a conversation.
  • May repeat words or phrases verbatim, but doesn't understand how to use them.


  • Performs repetitive movements, such as rocking, spinning or hand-flapping.
  • Develops specific routines or rituals.
  • Becomes disturbed when routines or rituals change slightly.

Her study followed children who showed signs of autism from childhood into adulthood and tracked the patients’ social and communication skills with verbal IQ tests and exercises designed to gauge progress in social situations.

For the most part, Lord said, test scores tended to improve as patients got older — patients were able to converse more easily with others and respond better to voices and commands. 

But there were exceptions to this rule. During the lecture, Lord showed videos of some patients, who showed some signs of improvement but other signs of regression.

“As you can see, eye contact worsened with him,” Lord said, pointing out one patient's discomfort in engaging in social situations. “And he isn’t speaking as much.”    

Lord emphasized that autism can be diagnosed at a young age, and many medical professionals have waited until patients become 4 or 5 years old to diagnose autism.

“Autism can be reliably diagnosed as young as 2 (years old),” Lord said.

She encouraged medical professionals to refer children showing signs to a specialist.

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