Children with autism appear to improve when
they have a fever , according to intriguing new research that could
lead to a better understanding of the disorder.
Fever was associated with less hyperactivity, improved communication, and
less irritability in the study involving children with autism and related
Anecdotal reports of improvements in autism
symptoms related to fever have circulated for years, but the research
represents the first scientific investigation into the observed
While kids with autism might be expected to be calmer and less hyperactive
when they have fevers, the improvement in communication and socialization seen
in the study suggests that fever directly affects brain function, pediatric
neurologist Andrew Zimmerman, MD, of Baltimore's Kennedy Krieger Institute,
"The improvement in symptoms may mean the underlying wiring of the brain (of
an autistic child) develops more normally than we have thought," he says,
adding that the problem may lie with the connections within the brain
responsible for sending information.
"Somehow fever appears to be changing the ability to make these
connections," he says.
4 out of 5 Kids With Fever Improved
The study involved 30 children with autism spectrum disorders, including
autism, who were observed by parents during and immediately after experiencing
a fever of 100.4 degrees or greater, and seven days after being without
The parents were asked to complete standardized behavior questionnaires
during the three time points designed to assess behavior. Parents of children
with autism spectrum disorders who did not experience fever were also surveyed
at related time points.
More than 80% of the children with fever in the study showed some
improvement in behavior during temperature elevations, the researchers reported
in the December issue of the journal Pediatrics.
Further analysis showed that behavior improvement was not dependent on the
degree of fever.
Zimmerman and lead researcher Laura K. Curran, PhD, tell WebMD that more
study is needed to confirm the findings.
"We'd like to interview more families to better understand this,"
Zimmerman says. "And at the chemical level, we'd like to have blood samples
from children while they have fever to analyze what is going on."
Autism, Fever, and Cytokines
One theory is that fever may affect brain function at the cellular level by
influencing the production of immune-system signaling proteins known as
If this proves to be the case, the finding could result in treatments for autism spectrum disorders that target
"That would be a long way off, but it is certainly within the realm of
possibility," Zimmerman says.
Marguerite Kirst Colston says the new research is significant because it is
one of the first to examine the symptoms parents deal with in biological
Colston is a spokeswoman for the American Society of Autism (ASA) and the
mother of a 7-year-old son with autism.
"We are hearing more and more about this from parents," she tells
WebMD. "Children seem calmer when they are sick and they seem to tolerate
closeness and touch better. We have all sort of marveled at this."
Colston hopes the research will lead to more studies that look beyond the
genetics of autism.
"The more we study what happens biologically, as well as genetically,
the more insight we may have into how to treat children to improve their
symptoms," she says. "I would like to see us focus on questions like,
'What helps these kids learn?' and 'What makes them feel better?' 'What do
people with autism need to live well?' I'm a parent who has tried a lot of
things, and I have no idea."
By Salynn Boyles
Reviewed by Louise Chang
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