Earlier Intervention Could Be Key To Beating Autism

One of the few things everyone can agree on with autism is that early intervention with behavioral therapy gives children the best chance at beating developmental delays. Now scientists are trying to determine just how early to intervene and to establish therapies that will work for infants. 

Many children start displaying symptoms of autism such as lack of eye contact and repetitive behavior as early as six months, but diagnosis usually comes after the age of three. The reason: all infants develop at different rates and unless a parent is on the lookout for symptoms of autism spectrum disorders (ASD), they can be easily overlooked at such a young age. 

A new study out of UC Davis MIND Institute conducted a small-scale study to determine the efficacy of therapy on very young children. The study monitored the progress of seven children between the ages of 7 and 15 months who showed signs of autism. The infants and their parents attended weekly therapy sessions, where they learned behavioral modification techniques and exercises they could integrate into their daily lives. 

At 36 months, the results were clear: three of the five children who were expected to develop autism when they were babies displayed no delays or symptoms. One child was diagnosed with mild autism but no developmental delays, and one child developed severe autism.

 

“It was like this beautiful thing happened,” says one parent participant with two older autistic children. Her son didn’t just catch up to his peers, but surpassed them. “This completely helped him. I don’t know what would have happened (otherwise).”

Of course, this study was way too small to draw any real conclusions, so why is it getting so much attention? 

Dr. Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele, an associate of psychiatry at Columbia University, answers,“This pilot study suggests that parents can be trained to interact with their at-risk infants using many of the same principles that are used for toddlers and preschoolers with ASD.”

“It begins to set the scene for future randomized, controlled studies to evaluate whether this type of intervention could actually prevent babies from developing full symptoms of autism spectrum disorder,” Veenstra-VanderWeele said. If it proves to work on a larger group, this “would be a truly transformative finding.”

It also shows the need to develop methods for earlier diagnosis. As of now, doctors and parents rely on looking for behavioral symptoms that are easily dismissed or overlooked in very young infants, but soon they may be able to screen with genomic testing or even a simple blood test.

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