Autism treatment for babies shows promise in small study

Simple changes in how parents interact with children may ease disorder

Changing how parents talk to, play with and feed babies in their first year of life may reduce the symptoms of autism, a small preliminary study suggests.

Although many children with autism aren’t diagnosed until age 4 or later, researchers are finding ways to detect the signs of the disorder in younger and younger children, even in the first few months of life (SN Online: 11/6/13). The trouble is that good treatments for infants don’t yet exist.

“We don’t just want to identify kids with autism and then make parents wait for a really long time to get intervention,” says psychologist Annette Estes of the University of Washington in Seattle. Though preliminary, the paper, to appear in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, is a step toward developing early, effective treatments, she says.

A behavior-based therapy called the Early Start Denver Model, which focuses on teaching children with autism ways to communicate and learn, has already shown promise in toddlers between 18 and 30 months old. In the new work, researchers wondered if a modified version of the therapy might help even younger children.

Sally Rogers of the University of California, Davis MIND Institute in Sacramento and colleagues tried the technique on 6- to 15-month-olds who had already begun to show signs of autism. For instance, these infants seemed more interested in objects than in people, showed unusually strong fixation on objects and didn’t try to communicate with caregivers as much as typically developing babies do.

Over 12 weeks, the researchers taught the children’s parents various techniques to engage their babies. If a baby was fixated on a toy, for instance, a parent could transform that solo activity into a social game by taking turns with the toy.

Compared with four babies who had shown similar autism signs but whose parents declined the therapy, seven treated babies scored better on learning and language measures at age 3, the researchers report. Three of the four untreated babies received an autism diagnosis at age 3; two of the seven treated children were diagnosed with autism.

Because the study didn’t randomly assign which infants received treatment, the researchers can’t say whether the therapy helped. “These data do not prove that this intervention either prevented autism or changed the course,” Rogers said in a press briefing. From such a small study, it’s hard to know how many children with early symptoms would go on to develop autism.

Still, child psychiatrist Fred Volkmar of Yale University says the results are encouraging. “I don’t want to oversell this study, but this is one now of several studies that are showing promising results with treatment” in young children, he says. The results, and others like it, show that “we can potentially make an even bigger difference the earlier we can intervene.”

Rogers and colleagues plan to conduct a larger randomized trial of the therapy involving young babies. 

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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