Children with autism think differently, and that thinking changes over time—for the better. That first statement might not seem like news: Of course their brains are different, they have autism! But children with autism do improve their thinking skills over time, according to new research. That's encouraging, particularly because most research has focused on whether communication skills and behavior can change, rather than on cognitive skills.
Thinking problems typical of autism include difficulties predicting other people's behavior based on their thoughts and feelings (known as theory of mind), and in problem-solving and planning (executive function). Children with autism also are often better than children without autism at focusing on tiny details, like a pattern in a carpet, or small parts of Legos. Previous research hasn't found much change in these cognitive skills, even though children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) can show big improvements in behavior, especially with intensive behavioral therapies.
But according to Elizabeth Pellicano, senior lecturer in autism education at the Institute of Education in London, the cognitive deficits in children with autism aren't set in stone.
She tested 37 children with ASDs and 31 non-autistic children when they were 5 or 6 years old, and tested them again three years later. While cognitive skills varied from child to child, most of the children with autism improved their abilities in theory of mind and executive function; when older, the children could better appreciate the thoughts and feelings of others and they were better able to plan and regulate their feelings than they were three years earlier, Pellicano reported in the October issue of Child Development. However, the children with autism didn't improve their detail-spotting over time, which was tested by asking them to search for shapes hidden in pictures, and to make patterns with wooden blocks. The non-autistic kids improved in those tasks over time.
Parents of children with autism can use this intriguing information to think differently about their child's cognitive potential, according to Pellicano. "These findings are immensely encouraging for parents," she said in an E-mail. "They suggest that critical improvements in their child's cognitive skills can take place within a reasonably short period of time."
But it's too early to say what therapies might help those thinking skills along, Pellicano adds. "It is important that parents are aware of this and that they don't get misled by the promises that the advocates of some treatments make," she says. "There is clearly a huge need for future research on promoting children's cognitive skills, since it will ensure that children with autism get the very best start in life."