A study finds that autism symptoms can be significantly reduced if treatment begins at the earliest age symptoms appear. The researchers – who also developed the treatment – claim in their study that symptoms were reduced to the extent that most children receiving the therapy had neither developmental delay nor autism spectrum symptoms by the age of 3.

mother and child playing with blocksShare on Pinterest
In the treatment, parents are encouraged to follow the interests of their infant and present activities in ways that optimize their child’s attention.

Typically, children diagnosed with autism begin early intervention at 3-4 years old. Symptoms of autism may appear as early as 6 months old, however, during the period when children first learn social interaction and communication.

The authors behind the new study believe that effective autism treatment is dependent on early detection, and that the sooner therapy begins, the better the chances are of preventing full onset of symptoms.

The therapy trialled in the new study, called Infant Start, was based on the Early Start Denver Model intervention developed by co-author Sally J. Rogers. The treatment is provided in the home and focuses on parent-child interactions during the routines of everyday life.

In the treatment, parents are encouraged to follow the interests of their infant and present activities in ways that optimize their child’s attention.

Parents are encouraged to imitate their infant’s sounds and intentional actions. The parents are also taught to use toys to support rather than compete with the child’s social attention.

In the study, Infant Start was administered to seven infants between the ages of 6 and 15 months old over the course of 6 months.

In addition, the study featured four comparison groups:

  • 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.

All of the infants came from families in Sacramento, CA, where English was the main language. The infants had normal vision and hearing and no significant medical conditions.

The infant participants were all assessed before and during the study, and received scores on the Autism Observation Scale for Infants and the Infant-Toddler Checklist that suggested they were highly symptomatic and therefore at risk of developing autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The treatment consisted of 12 1-hour sessions with infant and parent, followed by a 6-week “maintenance period” with biweekly visits, and then follow-up assessments at 24 and 36 months.

The study claims that although children who received this intervention displayed significantly more autism symptoms at 9 months, they had significantly lower autism severity scores at 18-36 months of age, compared with a small group of infants who also had ASD symptoms but who did not receive the treatment.

Overall, the authors say, the children who received the intervention were less impaired by autism symptoms and showed fewer language and developmental delays than all of the comparison groups.

However, these findings are only preliminary and the study group was very small. The treatment will need to be tested in larger, well-controlled studies before it can be recommended for general use. The results of the study are published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Play the video below to see Rogers discussing Infant Start.

“I am not trying to change the strengths that people with ASD bring to this world,” insists Rogers. “People with ASD contribute greatly to our culture. The diversity of human nature is what makes us a powerful and strong species. We are trying to reduce the disability associated with ASD.”

She adds:

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.”

Today on Medical News Today, we also look at a study that investigates to what extent sex hormones may influence autism risk.