Alex, aged 10, bounds onto his bed to pose with his Aaron Rodgers poster, grinning as proudly as if he had recruited the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback himself. Continuing the tour of his suburban New York bedroom, he points out his Packers-themed alarm clock, his soccer trophy, his Boy Scout trophy and then the big reveal: a homemade foam box in Packers green and gold.
“Mmm, very nice,” I say. Alex grins — part shy, part sly — as he turns it around to show me the message on the back: “Jets stink.”
Even though he seems to be an entirely ordinary boy, there’s something unusual about Alex: He once had autism, and now he does not. There was a time when Alex’s parents didn’t know if he would ever speak in full sentences, let alone joke around with a stranger. His autism, they suspected, might prevent any such future.
Alex’s parents began to worry about him before he was even 1 year old. He wasn’t learning to sit, crawl or stand as his fraternal twin brother was. Even more striking was how much less social he was compared with his brother.
“Alex was an expressionless child,” says his mother, Amy. (Alex and Amy’s names have been changed to protect their privacy.) She remembers a friend trying in vain to get Alex to laugh — jumping up and down, gesturing wildly, making silly faces. “His brother would be in belly laughs, and Alex would be just glazed over,” Amy says.
Their pediatrician, suspecting autism, recommended early intervention. When Alex was only 9 months old, his parents arranged for speech therapy, physical therapy and other special education services. Alex was formally diagnosed with autism when he was 2. He had all the hallmark symptoms: He avoided eye contact, he didn’t respond to his own name, he wouldn’t point to communicate what he wanted, he was obsessively interested in letters, numbers and animals. Like many children with autism, he had intense reactions to certain sensations, and mundane procedures such as getting a haircut were traumatic — the feel of the scissors on his neck made him writhe and scream.
In the wake of the diagnosis, Alex’s father struggled to picture a future that was anything but bleak, says Amy. But she was more optimistic, putting her hopes in an intensive program of behavioral therapy. Alex made steady progress — first in one-on-one therapy that required as many as 25 or 30 hours a week, then in therapeutic preschool and elementary schools and, finally, in a mainstream classroom. This year, his developmental pediatrician, autism specialist Lisa Shulman, judged that he no longer meets the criteria for an autism diagnosis.
Today, Alex is funny, gregarious and obsessed with sports. He is keenly self-aware and socially tuned in, chattering about the status hierarchy on the school bus and explaining that scoring soccer goals only occasionally is actually better than scoring in every game, because then it feels more special to high five your teammates.
Most children with autism will forever have the disorder. But a handful of studies in the past three years indicate that for reasons no one understands, a minority of children, like Alex, shed the core symptoms necessary for an autism diagnosis. Shulman, who runs a large clinical autism program at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, says most of these children face residual learning or emotional problems. “We still consider these kids as having had a wonderful outcome,” she says. “But they don’t get off scot-free.” Only “the minority of the minority” breeze through each new challenge life brings them — the book reports in elementary school, the social minefields in middle school, the expectations for independence in later adolescence and adulthood.