Most children with autism show very early signs and a particular developmental pattern, a small percentage
of children demonstrated a growth described as normal development followed by a loss of acquired skills or
a failure to use the achieved skills. This outcome has been termed autistic regression.
Most children with autism show developmental difficulties early in life, usually involving their ability to
communicate. Regressive autism occurs when a child appears to develop normally but then starts to lose
speech and social skills at about the age of 18 months and is later diagnosed with autism. Other terms used
to describe regression in children with autism are autism with regression, autistic regression, setback-type
autism, and acquired autistic syndrome. There is no standard definition for regression, and the prevalence of
regression varies depending on the definition used.
A new research study examines the 20 to 40 percent of children who appear to develop communication
skills, then regress. Home videos of children's birthday parties may confirm some children who seemed
normal in their first year of life may regress and develop symptoms of autism by their second birthday.
Home Videos Confirm Autistic Regression
A new study examined home videos of first and second year birthday parties and revealed that some autistic
children began to show symptoms of autism by their first birthday, such not using words or babbling, not
playing with other children, and lack of interest during the celebration. Meanwhile, other autistic children
who behaved normally during the first year appeared to regress and showed typical symptoms of autism by
their second birthday. Researchers say it's the first significant evidence of autistic regression, a form of
autism that accounts for about 25 percent of all autism cases in the U.S. Researchers recommend early
screening for autism during the 18, 24 and 36 months it’s essential to identify children who develop
normally at first, but then experience a regression.
Early Onset Autism vs. Autistic Regression
Researchers observed the frequency and duration of several behaviors seen in the videotapes, such as
language, eye contact with people, repetitive behavior, emotion, and playing with toys. They were unaware
of the diagnosis the children had at the time. They also interviewed the caregiver about the child's early
By the children's second birthday, both groups of autistic children vocalized and used words less frequently,
pointed seldom, rarely looked at people, and didn't respond when their name was called more often than the
typically developing children.
Children whose parents reported autistic regression used more detailed babble and words at their first
birthday than normal children, while children with early onset autism used the fewest words and least
amount of babble. In addition, children with the early onset form of autism pointed less at their first birthday
and showed more communication difficulties than the other two groups at this age.
Researchers say the results of this study show that at least some children don't develop the classic
symptoms of autism by the end of their first year of life, and these symptoms may emerge in the following
year. They say that by ages 3 and 4, there were no differences in the severity of autism between the two
groups of autistic children in this study. But more research is needed on whether autistic regression is
different than other forms of the autism.
Signs of Autism Regression
Regression in autism spectrum disorders is well documented; linking regression to environmental causes as
trigger may result in a delay in diagnosis. The apparent origin of regressive autism is surprising and upsetting
to parents, who often initially suspect severe hearing loss. In particular, because distinct symptoms start just
after children receive multiple vaccinations, such as MMR and varicella (chickenpox), some people believe
there’s a causal link between vaccination and autism, especially if accompanied by a fever, rash, and rapid
skill loss. Although some controversy remains no link has been found with vaccines.
Approximately 25–30% of children with autism spectrum disorders stop speaking after beginning to say
words, often before the age of two. Some children lose social development instead of language; some lose
both. After the regression, the child follows the usual pattern of autistic neurological development. The term
refers to the manner that neurological development has reversed; it is in fact only the altered developmental
skills, rather than the neurology as a whole, that regresses.
Skill loss may be very sudden, or may be slow and followed by an extended phase of no skill advancement;
the loss may be accompanied by diminished social play or increased tantrums. The limited gained skills
usually amount to a few words of spoken language, and may include some initial social awareness.
Autism Regression Facts
Results associated to development of spoken language and extent of social and academic impairment varies
among children with autism. But, research has shown that children with autism who receive earlier
treatment tend to have more positive outcomes. The researchers found:
• Nearly 77 percent of children experiencing language loss also lost communication skills in non-verbal areas.
Children who used words and then stopped talking showed a pattern of developing and losing non-verbal
communication skills, including responding to their name, imitation, direct eye contact, gestures,
participation in social games and receptive language skills before speech. They went from having more of
these skills before the loss than other children with ASD to having fewer of these non-verbal communication
skills after the word loss.
• The average age of diminishing skills is 19 months. Although children with regression had less apparent
autism symptoms before the loss, most of them already had started to display slight delays before the loss of
• There is speculation indicating there could be a possible regressive structure created by genetic and
environmental influences in autism. The patterns of development described by parents of children with
regression were not gradual; parents realized there was something wrong immediately.
The timing of childhood vaccinations and the occurrence of autism symptoms in early childhood has
prompted some to speculate that the two may be related, but scientific research has dismissed this theory.
• There is no evidence that regression in ASD is associated with the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR)
vaccine. Most children receive the MMR vaccine between 15 and 18 months, which is around the same time
that the loss of skills emerges. Children who received a vaccination before parents reported concerns were
just as likely to have delays beforehand as children who received vaccinations after the onset of ASD.