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Regressive Autism – Why It Occurs

May 24, 2024

Has your talkative, engaged, and energetic autistic child suddenly become quiet and uninterested? Does your child exhibit new, unusual habits? Have you noticed speech regression? If you answered yes, then they may have regressive autism.

Regressive Autism – Why It Occurs

Based on data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in every 68 children in the US has autism, including regressive autism. The US federal government spends more than $238 billion a year to help families treat autism.

In this article, we will discuss some facts about regressive autism, its signs and symptoms, and possible treatments. We’ll also outline the steps parents can take if they observe these signs in their children.

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Regressive Autism

What is Regressive Autism?

Regressive autism is a condition in which a child appears to develop typically but suddenly begins to lose speech and social skills. It is also called autism with regression, autistic regression, setback-type autism, and acquired autistic syndrome. Signs and symptoms are usually seen between the ages of 15 and 30 months. The loss of these skills can be rapid or slow. It is usually followed by a lengthy period of stagnant skill progression.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), issued by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), defines regressive autism as any type of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) involving regression, including childhood disintegrative disorder.

It’s vital that a child with regressive autism receives the proper diagnosis early on. Once diagnosed, parents and caregivers can learn the appropriate therapies needed. Keep in mind all children with autism are different, and progress will be dependent on many factors.

Regressive Autism – Why It Occurs

Some Facts About Autism With Regression

Studies have shown the levels of social and academic impairment among children with autism are different on a case-to-case basis. Research also shows that children with autism who receive early treatment display better progress. Here are other results of the different studies:

The diminishing skills in children with autistic regression were observed at the average age of 19 months. It was also observed that most of these children had already started to show slight delays in development before they began to exhibit a loss of words. However, the majority of kids with regression have shown less apparent symptoms of their condition before their actual loss of skills.

Almost 77 percent of children who suffered language loss also experienced a loss in communication skills. Children who used to be very talkative and then suddenly stopped talking exhibited a pattern of developing and losing nonverbal communication skills. These skills include imitation, direct eye contact, responding to their name, participation in social games, receptive language skills before speech, and gestures.

There is a possibility that a regressive structure caused by genetic and environmental factors can lead to the development of autistic behavior in children. This is because the patterns of development observed by the parents of children with setback-type autism were not gradual. According to the parents, they realized there was something wrong in their children immediately.

Possible Causes of Regressive Autism in Children

There have been various studies conducted on the possible causes of developmental delays and ASD in children over the years. Some of these ASD experiments have resulted in positive findings, while others failed. In the study conducted by researchers from the University of California, Davis titled Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Autism, a possible biological cause of autism was identified.

In their analysis, researchers found that autism or developmental delays can be due to a child’s acquired loss of the ability to produce energy in their cells, an increase in oxidative stress, and damage to the mitochondria or the energy factories in cells. As brain function and neurodevelopment are highly dependent on energy, the failure of the mitochondria to produce sufficient energy to fuel the brain may result in developmental delays and, possibly, autism.

Another breakthrough is the study led by Doctor Paul Ashwood of the Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders (M.I.N.D.) Institute at the University of California, Davis. In the study, Ashwood and his team found evidence linking autism regression with immune dysfunction, brain changes, gastrointestinal (GI) distress, and severe repetitive behaviors.

The researchers also discovered elevated levels of the immune cells called dendritic cells in autistic kids. This immune abnormality can be due to the enlargement of the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that controls emotional responses. The study showed that regressive autism is associated with an increased level of plasmacytoid cells, a type of dendritic cell usually found in the peripheral lymphoid organs.

Moreover, a 2013 study led by Betty Diamond, head of The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research’s Center for Autoimmune and Musculoskeletal Disorders in Long Island, New York, showed that autism may be caused by the anti-brain antibodies that are able to penetrate the immature blood-brain barrier of a developing fetus while in the womb. The antibodies may then cause damage to the fetus’s brain, resulting in autism or developmental delays when born.

Signs of Regressive Autism in Children

Various studies showed around 25-30 percent of kids with ASD stop speaking after they start to say some words, usually before reaching the age of two. Some children lose social development instead of language, and some lose both. Here are other signs of autism regression:

Early Signs of ASD in a Child:

  • Avoids or doesn’t like eye contact
  • Fails to respond when the child’s name is called (the child may initially be suspected to be deaf)
  • Unable to point at objects or things of interest, or failure to show interest
  • Generally wants to be alone
  • Fails to understand or acknowledge other people’s feelings, as well as their own
  • Experiences echolalia, or the tendency to repeat words and phrases uttered by other people over and over again
  • Tends to give unrelated answers to questions asked to them
  • Obsessive interests
  • Loves to flap hands, spin in circles, and rock the body
  • Gets upset by minor changes in daily activities
  • Exhibits low to zero social skills
  • Shows unusual reactions like over- or under-sensitivity to the sound, smell, taste, look, and feel of various things
  • Tends to reverse the use of pronouns and use “you” instead of “I”
  • Detests or avoids physical contact
  • Demonstrates little attention to safety and is greatly unaware of danger

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Other Signs and Symptoms of Autism Regression

A child with autism may also exhibit such signs and symptoms as:

  • Impulsivity or acting without thinking
  • Extreme anxiety and phobias, as well as unusual phobias
  • Exhibits unusual interests and behaviors
  • Loves to play with toys the same way each time
  • Shows very active or hyperactive behavior
  • Exhibits unusual eating and sleeping habits, including sleep regression
  • Exhibits strange moods or emotional reactions
  • Shows a lack of fear or more fear than anticipated
  • Loves to line up toys or other objects
  • Exhibits a liking for specific parts of objects, such as the wheels of toy cars

Diagnostic Tools for Children Suspected with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

There are already lots of tools used by specialists and health professionals in testing and assessing whether a child has ASD. In the assessment, several specialists work together to identify the real condition of a child.

The multidisciplinary team usually includes a psychologist, a speech pathologist, and a pediatrician or child psychiatrist. Conducting this assessment can result in a more accurate diagnosis. The diagnosis can also identify the best treatment plan for a child with autism.

The test for determining if a child may have ASD consists of several procedures. These include watching and observing how a child plays and interacts with others, conducting interviews with the child’s parents, and reviewing and assessing the child’s developmental history. The team of physicians also measures the child’s strengths and weaknesses in such areas as moving, communicating, and thinking.

Screening Tools for Assessing Possible ASD in Children

If you, as a parent or a caregiver, suspect a child may be exhibiting signs of ASD, a tool to help assess and/or screen the child for possible symptoms of autism is a Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers, Revised with Follow-up (M-CHAT-R/F).

This tool is a two-stage parent-report screening process to assess possible ASD in children. The tool is designed to identify children 16 to 30 months of age effectively. It determines whether the child should undergo a more comprehensive assessment or evaluation for possible early signs of developmental delay or autistic behavior.

The checklist is one of the tools recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) for screening children for possible ASD. The screening tool is implemented in two stages: developmental screening and comprehensive diagnostic evaluation. 

Developmental Screening

Developmental screening is a short test to determine whether a child is learning the basic skills appropriate to their age or experiencing some learning delays. During the screening, the attending physician may ask the parents several questions or talk and play with the child to observe how they learn, behave, speak, and move.

Any observable delays in these areas may be a sign of autism. Children should be screened for developmental disabilities and delays during regular doctor visits. The ideal ages are 9 months old, 18 months old, and 24 or 30 months old.

Comprehensive Diagnostic Evaluation

This second and final step is a comprehensive evaluation to assess the child’s health and behavior thoroughly. The process includes a hearing and vision screening, genetic testing, neurological testing, and other medical testing. It also includes examining the child’s behavior and development and interviewing the parents about the child and their family.

Sometimes, the family doctor may refer the child and family to a specialist physician for additional diagnosis and evaluation. The specialist could be a developmental pediatrician, a child psychologist, or a child neurologist.

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Regressive Autism

Some Test and Screening Tools for the Diagnosis of ASD

If you suspect your child to be experiencing developmental delays or autism, you should immediately take them to your family doctor, a pediatrician, or an autism specialist for further evaluation and diagnosis. These health professionals usually use the DSM-5 manual to break down the signs and symptoms of ASD into categories to confirm a diagnosis of autism effectively.

Here are some other tests and screening tools that can help in assessing if a child has autism:

  • Autism Diagnostic Interview, Revised (ADI-R)
  • Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, Second Edition (ADOS)
  • Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT)
  • Childhood Autism Rating Scales, Second Edition (CARS-2)
  • Autism Behavior Checklist (ABC)
  • Psycho-Educational Profile – Third Edition (PEP-3)
  • Social Communication Questionnaire (SCQ)
  • Developmental Behavior Checklist (DBC)

Experts have recommended the use of educational and behavioral therapies as possible treatments for autistic kids because of their effectiveness, especially when combined with dietary and medical interventions. The parents, siblings, and caregivers of children with ASD are encouraged to train for these therapies in order for them to apply these treatments themselves. These recommended therapies are:

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

This therapy mainly involves the services of a therapist who works intensely with a child in one-on-one sessions for 20 to 40 hours per week. The sessions usually start with formally structured drills like learning to point to a certain object when its name is given.

In the sessions, the child is taught skills like learning the various colors in a simple step-by-step process. ABA programs are claimed to be most effective when they are started early (before the age of five), but they are also beneficial to older children.

Due to their effectiveness, various behavioral interventions have been developed that are considered as ABA. The American Medical Association and the US Surgeon General have also recommended the therapy for kids with ASD.

Speech Therapy

As autistic children often have speech difficulties, conducting speech therapy may be very beneficial. The use of sign languages, as well as a picture exchange communication system (PECS), is also recommended as a tool for developing speech in children with autism.

Sensory Integration

A number, if not all, individuals with autism have sensory issues in varying degrees from mild to severe. Sensory therapies may be very beneficial for improvement. This therapy focuses on three senses: vestibular, or the sense of motion and balance, tactile, or the sense of touch, and proprioception, or the sense of locomotion, movement, or position. There are many techniques used in sensory integration to normalize the senses of people on the spectrum.

Auditory Intervention

This therapy aims to improve the auditory processing of children with autism, as well as to eliminate their sensitivity to sound and reduce their behavioral problems. There are various types of auditory interventions like the Berard Auditory Integration Training (AIT), the Tomatis approach, the Samonas Sound Therapy, and the Listening Program.

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Vision Training and Irlen Lenses

These tools are intended to resolve the issues experienced by people with ASD with respect to their visual environment and/or to their surroundings. Among such challenges may include a short attention span, excessive eye movements, difficulty scanning or tracking movements, being easily distracted, toe walking, and being cautious when walking up or down the stairs.

The conduct of a vision training program involving the use of ambient prism lenses and visual-motor exercises may lessen or totally eliminate many of these issues. The use of the colored or tinted lenses called Irlen lenses in this program is also proven to be effective in treating autistic individuals with hypersensitivity to certain types of lighting like fluorescent lights and bright sunlight, as well as those with difficulty reading printed texts.

Relationship Development Intervention (RDI)

This type of therapy is a family-based behavioral treatment designed to address a core issue of ASD, namely, the development of social skills and friendships. Psychologist Steven Gutstein developed this therapy based on the theory that “dynamic intelligence” is key to enhancing the quality of life of autistic people. The six main objectives of RDI are social coordination, declarative language, emotional referencing, flexible thinking, foresight and hindsight, and relational information processing.

Training under this type of therapy usually starts with the parents or caregivers of autistic children. An RDI consultant conducts extensive training of the parents or caregivers so they may effectively interact with their children. According to Doctor Gutstein, enhancing the relationship between the child and their parents or caregivers may result in improved brain function or neural connectivity.

Steroid Therapy/Medications

This type of therapy may be as effective as a treatment for individuals with regressive autism. Steroids have been successfully used in treating related epileptic syndromes like the Landau-Kleffner syndrome (LKS), which is linked to speech regression and acquired epileptiform aphasia. Steroids have also been proven to be an effective treatment for multiple neurological disorders such as epilepsy, muscular dystrophies, and encephalitis.

In a study involving the drug prednisolone as a steroid therapy, children treated with the drug showed major improvements in their receptive and expressive language skills, as well as in their frequency modulated auditory evoked response (FMAER). However, there are possible side effects of the use of steroids, so parents and caregivers of kids with autistic regression should do several consultations with physicians before administering it to their children.

Some medications include antidepressant drugs like Prozac (Fluoxetine), Lexapro, and Zoloft (Sertraline), as well as antipsychotic drugs such as Risperdal (Risperidone). These drugs are effective in treating autism symptoms like anxiety, panic attacks, and aggression. It is recommended that sufficient consultations with specialist physicians be conducted before giving these drugs to individuals with ASD.

General Tips for Parents with Autistic Children

Caring for kids with autism can be challenging and tough for parents and caregivers. Here are some tips to consider when caring for children in the spectrum:

  • Participate in or become a member of one or more parent support groups or join a parent email group. These are effective and wonderful sources of support and information for the care of individuals with ASD.
  • Parents or caregivers should ensure their children’s diagnosis is accurate in order to obtain the proper treatment. In some cases, physicians opt to give a ‘softer’ diagnosis so parents will not be too worried. However, this may worsen the condition of a child because he/she will not receive the appropriate treatment or medication.
  • Visit your local school district and inquire about the various programs they offer for children with special needs.
  • You may contact your state or local governments and inquire about the services they provide to help children with autism and their parents.
  • Look for a physician who provides an integrated medical approach for treating autism like medical and nutritional testing and treatments. You should find a doctor who is really willing to help your child rather than a physician who is merely content in monitoring the severity of your child’s condition. You should also ensure your physician supports you and respects your opinions.
  • You should strive to manage your time well in order to attend to the needs of your other children and your spouse. You should maintain open and positive communication to all members of your family so you can effectively resolve all challenges that may come along in the long term.
  • You should not stop researching on your own. Keep learning new ways to help your child cope with their challenges. Who knows, the solution you are looking/waiting for may already be available.
Regressive Autism – Why It Occurs


Regressive autism and other autism spectrum disorders can be very challenging for parents and their affected children. However, these challenges can be identified and managed with the right strategies, a positive outlook, and determination. Various advancements in medical research show that effective treatments are already on the horizon.


Q: Is regressive autism more common than other forms of autism?

A: Regressive autism is considered a less common subtype of autism, with estimates suggesting it occurs in a minority of individuals with ASD.

Q: Can regressive autism be prevented?

A: There is no known way to prevent regressive autism, as its exact causes remain unclear.

Q: What therapies are most effective for children with regressive autism?

A: Applied behavior analysis (ABA), speech, and occupational therapy have shown promise in helping children with regressive autism regain lost skills.

Q: Do children with regressive autism catch up to their peers in development?

A: With early intervention and tailored support, some children with regressive autism can progress significantly and catch up to their peers developmentally.

Q: Where can I find support as a parent of a child with regressive autism?

A: Numerous organizations and online communities offer support and resources for parents of children with regressive autism. Reach out to your local autism association for guidance.


Recommendations on screening for developmental delay

DSM-5 and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs): an opportunity for identifying ASD subtypes

Elevated plasma cytokines in autism spectrum disorders provide evidence of immune dysfunction and are associated with impaired behavioral outcome

Maternal Antibody and ASD: Clinical Data and Animal Models

Mitochondrial dysfunction: A hidden trigger of autism?

Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Autism

Early Intervention in Severe Autism: Positive Outcome Using Exchange and Development Therapy

Developmental regression in autism spectrum disorder

Loss of Acquired Skills: Regression in Young Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders

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