In a small pilot study, parents learned and delivered a treatment that significantly reduced autism symptoms in babies who had shown warning signs for the disorder.
The research appears in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Lead researcher Sally Rogers developed the new therapy – dubbed “Infant Start” – with the help of a research grant from Autism Speaks. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development funded the new pilot study.
“Ultimately, the goal of earlier detection of autism has to be effective early treatment,” says developmental pediatrician Paul Wang, Autism Speaks senior vice president and head of medical research. “As such, this new study represents an important effort to develop and test interventions for very young children. Moreover, because it was largely provided through parent training, it has the potential to be a cost-effective addition to professional therapy.” Dr. Wang was not directly involved in the research.
Why infant intervention?
At present, clinicians can’t reliably diagnose autism until around age 2, when symptoms tend to become obvious. However, a growing body of research indicates that warning signs such as repetitive behaviors and lack of social engagement can appear much earlier. The hope has been that such signs can flag a crucial early window for intervention that improves brain development. Improved parent-child interaction, for example, appears to provide an important foundation for later social development and learning.
In their new study, researchers at the University of California-Davis pilot tested Dr. Roger’s new parent-delivered, autism therapy for babies. She based it on the Early Start Denver Model program for toddlers. Dr. Rogers developed this highly effective therapy program with child psychologist and autism pioneer Geraldine Dawson. (Dr. Dawson was Autism Speaks’ first chief science officer and is now a professor at Duke University.)
Dr. Rogers and her colleagues at UC-Davis enrolled seven parents of 7- to 15-month-old infants whose behaviors indicated they were at high risk for developing autism. These behaviors included abnormal fixations and repetitive motions and decreased eye contact. The parents received training in techniques that encourage social engagement with their babies.
In particular, the training focused on:
* Drawing infant attention to the parent’s face and voice
* Parent imitation of the infants’ sounds and actions
* Use of toys to support the baby’s attention to social cues
* Enjoyable activities that promote parent-infant interaction
After a 12-week training period, families continued the program for another six months while the researchers monitored how well the parents delivered its techniques. The investigators also continued to monitor the children’s development up to a formal diagnostic evaluation at age 3.
By age 3, the children receiving the intervention had significantly less-severe autism symptoms than did a comparison group of children who had similar symptoms as babies but whose parents opted to delay therapy.
“Most of the children in the study – six out of seven – caught up in all of their learning skills and their language by the time they were 2 to 3,” says lead investigator Sally Rogers. “Most children with ASD are barely even getting diagnosed by then.”
Importantly, the researchers say, the study suggests that parents can effectively learn and deliver the Infant Start intervention after a period of coaching.
“While these results are very encouraging, this early study is too small and limited in control groups to draw conclusions about the program’s effectiveness,” Dr. Wang says. “As Dr. Rogers herself says, we want to see further research to confirm potential benefits and push forward on this frontier of treatment, so that the benefits of early detection can be fully realized.”