Shocking new study from UC-Davis offers potential hope for a cure for autism.
Treatment at the earliest age when autism spectrum disorder is detectable — in infants as young as 6 months old — significantly reduces symptoms so that by age 3 most who received the therapy had neither autism nor delay, a research study has found.
Early identification crucial
Children diagnosed with autism typically receive early intervention beginning at 3 to 4 years, six to eight times later than the children who participated in the study. But the earliest symptoms of autism may be present before the child’s first birthday. Infancy is the time when children first learn social interaction and communication, so autism researchers and parents of children with the condition have been working to identify autism and begin intervention sooner.
Effective autism treatment relies on early detection so that a child can begin therapy as soon as possible, to prevent or mitigate the full onset of symptoms and sometimes severe and lifelong disability.
“We were very fortunate to have this treatment available for the affected infants identified through our study,” said Ozonoff, who directs the MIND Institute’s Infant Sibling Study, an early detection project that follows babies at risk for autism or ADHD from birth through age 3.
“We want to make referrals for early intervention as soon as there are signs that a baby might be developing autism,” Ozonoff said. “In most parts of the country and the world, services that address autism-specific developmental skills are just not available for infants this young.”
Of the seven babies in the study, four were part of the Infant Sibling Study. In addition to these four, the other three children were referred by community parents. The treatment group was compared with four other groups of children that included:
- High-risk children with older siblings with autism who did not develop autism
- Low-risk children who were the younger siblings of typically developing children
- Infants who developed autism by the age of 3
- Children who also had early autism symptoms but chose to receive treatment at an older age
Treatment based on Early Start Denver Model
The treatment was based on the highly successful Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) intervention developed by Rogers and her colleague, Geraldine Dawson, professor of psychiatry, psychology and pediatrics at Duke University in North Carolina. ESDM is usually provided in the home by trained therapists and parents during natural play and daily routines.
Parents were coached to concentrate their interactions on supporting their infants’ individualized developmental needs and interests, and embedded these practices into all of their play and caretaking, focusing on creating pleasurable social routines to increase their children’s opportunities for learning. Parents were encouraged to follow their infants’ interests and subtle cues and gauge activities in ways that optimized their child’s attention and engagement. The intervention focused on increasing:
- Infant attention to parent faces and voices
- Parent-child interactions that attract infants’ attention, bringing smiles and delight to both
- Parent imitation of infant sounds and intentional actions
- Parent use of toys to support, rather than compete with, the child’s social attention
The treatment sessions included:
- Greeting and parent progress sharing
- A warm-up period of parent play, followed by discussion of the activity and intervention goals
- Discussion of a new topic, using a parent manual
- Parents interacting in a typical daily routine with their child while fostering social engagement, communication and appropriate play, with coaching from therapists
- Parents practicing the approach with their child across one or two additional home routines with toys or caregiving activities
Autism scores lowered by 18 to 36 months
All of the participants who received treatment were between 6 and 15 months old, lived within a one-hour drive of the MIND Institute, and came from families where English was the primary language. They had normal vision and hearing and no significant medical conditions. All received assessments prior to their participation and at multiple points throughout the study. The treatment group of seven children received scores on the Autism Observation Scale for Infants (AOSI) and the Infant-Toddler Checklist that indicated they were highly symptomatic and at risk of developing ASD. Their symptoms also elicited clinical concern from professors Rogers and Ozonoff.
The study measured the children’s and parents’ responses to the intervention. Treatment began immediately after enrollment and consisted of 12 one-hour sessions with infant and parent. It was followed by a six-week maintenance period with biweekly visits, and follow-up assessments at 24 and 36 months. The treatment sessions focused on parent-child interactions during typical daily life and provided parent coaching as needed to increase infant attention, communication, early language development, play and social engagement.
The children who received the intervention had significantly more autism symptoms at 9 months, but significantly lower autism severity scores at 18- to 36-months of age, when compared with a small group of similarly symptomatic infants who did not receive the therapy. Overall, the children who received the intervention had less impairment in terms of autism diagnosis, and language and development delays than either of the other affected groups. READ MORE