Doctors and scientists earlier showed their inability to make a very reliable diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder until the toddler turns 2 years old.
A new study from UC Davis’ MIND Institute suggests that guided social interaction between a mother and her baby can reduce autism symptoms by age 3.
The study, published online Tuesday in the Journal of Autism and Development Disorders, is a ray of new hopes for parents.
The younger your child, the greater the impact of treatment on symptoms of autism.
The small study – in highly symptomatic children – is the first attempt for starting therapy to accurately identify early signs of autism.
“With only seven infants in the treatment group, no conclusions can be drawn,” they wrote.
Seven babies, aged 6-9 months old from UC Davis programs or the community, underwent training. All of them had demonstrated early signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) , such as low interest in interactions, inability to make eye contact and a lack of communication with caregivers.
Six out of the seven children in the study had normal learning and language skills by the time they reached their third birthday with five having no symptom and one with mild symptom.
One of them was Isobel.
“She is 3 years old now and she is a 100 percent typical, normally developing child,” her mother, Megan, told.
“We don’t have to do the therapy any more. It literally rewired her brain.”
The treatment consisted of 12, one-hour professional therapist sessions only with the baby and his or her parents. This was followed by biweekly visits for six-weeks, and follow-up assessments at 24 and 36 months.
Autism spectrum disorders appear in infancy and early childhood.
Study co-author Sally J.Rogers, a professor and developmental psychologist at UC Davis demands a rigorous and large-scale study on the same.
“It doesn’t prove that these children recovered from autism,” Rogers said, because they were too young to be diagnosed with the condition. But “it’s a promise of a potential treatment for young children who have these symptoms.”
The lead investigator said “It gives us a little hint that the children may well have gone on to have more difficulties had we not done this intervention early.” He also said, “But it’s only a hint, not proof.”
The treatment, based on the “Early Denver Start Model,” developed by Rogers and her colleague, Geraldine Dawson, professor of psychiatry, psychology and pediatrics at Duke University in North Carolina, focused on increasing the babies’ attention to their parents faces and voices, and worked with parents on how to use toys to engage their children socially, and to optimize engagement in various ways.
“Study after study has demonstrated that parents of children with ASD have excellent parenting skills,” said Rogers. “However, their babies may not respond in a way that tells them they’re on the right track. For a parent getting feedback from a baby that says, ‘I’m not interested,’ the parent may change what he or she is doing.”
Autism is a general term for a group of complex disorders of brain development. It is characterized by impaired social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior. Autism statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identify around 1 in 68 American children as on the autism spectrum–a ten-fold increase in prevalence in 40 years.
Experts advice the parents to, “monitor their child’s development, take action if you’re concerned increase infant’s attention to and communication with parents, and trust your instincts.”
Rogers said, “If that goes on for a long time, children are having fewer and fewer chances to learn and that’s going to have its effect over time.” He explained, “And that’s why it’s important that children get into treatment as soon as their symptoms emerge.”
“There’s no reason to think that children would do better if they’re getting these interventions earlier” rather than later, she said. “And in fact, most children haven’t shown their symptoms this early.”
Not all parents will have the time necessary to partake in the program, said Dr. Lisa Shulman, director of Infant and Toddler Services at Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center.
Some may not have the time, or lack the commitment to parenting a challenging child, she said.
Plus, parents whose children don’t improve with early therapy, shouldn’t blame themselves, she said. “There will be a group of parents who will say even if my child had been identified that early, I don’t think that would have made a difference. I say as a professional, ‘that’s true.'”
“I am not trying to change the strengths that people with ASD bring to this world,” Rogers said when asked whether she is seeking to “cure” autism.
“People with ASD contribute greatly to our culture,” she said. “The diversity of human nature is what makes us a powerful and strong species. We are trying to reduce the disability associated with ASD.”
“My goal is for children and adults with autism symptoms to be able to participate successfully in everyday life and in all aspects of the community in which they want to participate: to have satisfying work, recreation, and relationships, education that meets their needs and goals, a circle of people they love, and to be generally happy with their lives.”