Autistic regression refers to a loss of previously acquired skills or a backtracking of developmental milestones. In young children, it may represent autism onset. In older children and adults, it may be a sign of autistic burnout.

Developmental regression in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) describes a loss or reversal of previously established skills or milestones during childhood.

Regression may become evident across multiple areas, including:

  • language
  • social skills
  • emotional regulation
  • motor function
  • self-directed behavior

Many children experience temporary regression at some point in time. It’s considered a natural part of development and often occurs as a response to feeling overwhelmed by new situations, growing responsibilities, and stress.

Autistic children and children living with other neurodevelopmental disorders, however, are more likely to experience developmental regression than neurotypical children.

Autistic regression refers to a reversal or plateau in a child’s developmental progress.

“Regression in autism is exactly what the name implies,” Lacey Cottingham, a licensed clinical social worker from Raleigh, North Carolina, told Healthline. “You are autistic. You were able to do a set of things, and then you find you can’t do those things anymore.”

Autistic regression may occur after an established ASD diagnosis, in what’s called “late regression,” or it may be one way ASD presents during early childhood and that leads to diagnosis.

A 2019 review indicates that for approximately one-third of children, ASD onset is signified by the loss of established skills after typical development.

Regression in autism is possible for adults as well as children.

Dr. Jessica Myszak, psychologist and director of The Help and Healing Center in Glenview, Illinois, explains that, in adults, autistic regression is associated with autistic burnout.

“[This is] a condition in which an autistic person’s [coping] reserves deplete as a result of chronic stress from masking and surviving without adequate supports,” she said. “This is becoming more widely recognized and understood as autistic adults are sharing information about their experiences.”

To others, regression in autistic adults (and older children) may come across as laziness or avoidance. Still, Cottingham emphasizes regression is an actual loss of ability even if willingness and desire exist.

“I want to make it very clear, it’s not laziness,” she said. “Something happened, and the body is fighting what is perceived as a threat.”

Why regression happens in ASD isn’t clear. When it comes to early onset symptoms, some experts believe developmental regression may represent a subtype of ASD.

A multicenter study from 2022, for example, suggests regressive ASD is associated with more severe core symptoms, lower neurocognitive developmental levels, and a higher need for support than nonregressive ASD.

Experiencing regression after an ASD diagnosis may develop from autistic burnout, even in children, says Myszak, though it’s more likely a factor for older children than younger ones.

“I believe causes of autistic regression are rooted in sudden changes that have a meaningful impact on the emotional safety of the person,” Cottingham added. “While a child of the neuromajority may experience stress for 2–3 days, an autistic child will need longer to fully learn and adapt.”

According to a 2023 review, language and social skills are common areas where regression in autistic children becomes evident.

Signs of regression may include:

  • loss of previously used words or phrases
  • overall decreased communication
  • new challenges in forming sentences
  • grammar mistakes
  • reverting to infantile sounds, like cooing or babbling
  • not understanding communication from others
  • social withdrawal
  • reduced eye contact
  • not acknowledging social cues
  • lack of interest in peer engagement
  • not wanting to share or take turns

“If your child is older than about age 10, it will look different,” Cottingham said. “It [can] look like avoidance, laziness, or slothfulness. I have worked with an individual who just suddenly stopped being able to brush their teeth, [for example].”

A general sign of regression is losing the ability or interest in performing a task previously commanded or enjoyed.

Developmental regression is not a formal diagnosis. It’s a descriptive term used to indicate a specific type of developmental phenomenon.

If you or your child is experiencing a loss of ability, speaking with a healthcare professional may help shed light on possible underlying causes.

Regression is not limited to ASD. Other neurodevelopmental conditions may cause changes in a person’s functioning.

Regression associated with ASD onset may improve with the proper support, though not all children fully recover skills that were lost. Professional guidance can help autistic children develop new, successful ways to adapt and engage with the world around them.

When regression is related to autistic burnout, coping skills and stress management may help.

“Speaking very broadly and generally, if you can clear up whatever led to the anxiety or stress, you’ll fix the regression,” Cottingham said. “For adults, it may take some digging and honesty about what bothers you. Often, it’s the small things that we push ourselves to just get over that are eating up the emotional energy we have, thus leading to the regression.”

Myszak adds that by creating space and reducing demands on an autistic person, they can find their way back into a zone of tolerance where they can tackle new challenges and meet the needs of their environment.

Understanding more about autistic regression can help you find the best support for you or your child.

What age is autism regression common?

According to 2021 research, early onset autistic regression typically occurs between ages 18–24 months, while late regression has a mean onset of 13 years.

Can regressive autism be stopped?

Regressive autism is not a progressive condition, meaning you won’t continue to lose baseline skills until they’re all gone. While the severity of regression may vary, Myszak says many people can regain lost milestones with the proper support and stress management.

How long does autism regression last?

How long autism regression lasts varies by individual. Some developmental regression, such as that seen in early ASD onset, can last a lifetime, while other experiences only continue for days or weeks.

Support can also make a difference for an autistic child experiencing regression.

“The length of a regression varies and can be relatively short-lived or last for years,” Myszak said.

Developmental regression is commonly seen in children with neurodevelopmental conditions like autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It involves a loss of established skills.

While some skills lost in early onset regression may not be recovered, the level of ASD support may help children adjust to changes in function.

Stress management and the development of new coping skills may help improve symptoms of regression related to autistic burnout in adults.