A new study published in The Lancet Psychiatry suggests video-based therapy may improve the engagement, attention and social behavior of infants at risk of autism and reduce their risk of developing the condition.

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Video-based therapy reduced autism-related behavior in infants at risk of autism, according to researchers.

Lead author Prof. Jonathan Green, of the University of Manchester in the UK, says the findings indicate that “targeting the earliest risk markers of autism – such as lack of attention or reduced social interest or engagement – during the first year of life may lessen the development of these symptoms later on.”

Over the past 15 years, there has been a significant rise in autism prevalence in the US. The condition now affects around 1 in 68 children, compared with 1 in 150 back in 2000.

Autism onset usually occurs before the age of 3 years. Some children with the condition may develop normally up until the age of 18-24 months, while others may show signs of the condition earlier – such as not responding to their name by the age of 12 months and not pointing at objects to indicate interest by the age of 14 months.

Current treatments deemed “early intervention services” for children with autism usually begin when a child is 3-4 years old. But some studies have suggested that if such treatments are started even earlier, this could reduce the severity of symptoms further and even prevent the condition from developing.

In 2012, for example, Medical News Today reported on a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, in which researchers claimed a therapy called the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) could “normalize” the brain activity of infants aged 18-24 months who had autism, improving their communication and social skills.

In this latest study, Prof. Green and his team investigated the effectiveness of early intervention with an adapted Video Interaction for Promoting Positive Parenting Programme (iBASIS-VIPP) for improving social interaction among young infants at high familial risk of autism.

Fast facts about autism
  • Autism is almost five times more common among boys than girls
  • Parents who have a child with autism have a 2-18% chance of having a second child with the condition
  • In the US, it costs approximately $17,000 more each year to care for a child with autism than to care for a child without the disorder.

Learn more about autism

The researchers explain that the iBASIS-VIPP intervention uses video feedback to help parents “understand and adapt to their infant’s individual communication style to promote the best possible social and communicative development.”

A therapist visits a child’s home and records natural interactions between them and their parents. These recordings are then shown to the parent and are used to help them learn and become accustomed to their child’s social behavior.

For the study, the researchers assigned 54 families with an infant at risk of autism to receive either the iBASIS-VIPP therapy or no treatment. The infants were aged between 7 and 10 months.

The families subject to the intervention had between six and 12 iBASIS-VIPP sessions over a 5-month period. At the end of the study period, the researchers used the Autism Observation Scale for Infants (AOSI) to assess behavioral markers of autism among the infants.

Compared with the infants who did not receive the iBASIS-VIPP therapy, those who did showed significant improvements in engagement, attention and social behavior. On the AOSI scale, infants who received the intervention had lower scores for autism-related behavior than those who did not receive the treatment.

In addition, the team identified changes in the behavior of parents. For example, they were able to increase the attentiveness of their infant while being less directive.

“Previous research has shown that parent-based interventions similar to the one we tested here, but delivered later in the preschool years and to children already diagnosed with autism, tend to have the greatest effects on parent-child interaction, whilst having little impact on actual autism symptoms,” says Prof. Green, adding:

In contrast, the video-based intervention we tested in this study in early infancy seems to have wider impact on a number of behavioral effects and risk markers for later autism.

The results suggest that the video-based therapy we tested may have a moderate effect on reducing some children’s risk of autism, although larger studies will be needed to confirm this.”

In an editorial linked to the study, Catherine Lord, of the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, NY, says this study suggests the possibility of providing a focused, risk-based intervention prior to an autism diagnosis.

“Because siblings of children with autism are at risk for a broader array of difficulties than only autism, this intervention allows a way to provide services that directly address their needs without having to make very early decisions about diagnosis,” she adds.

Last month, MNT reported on a study suggesting living with pets may help children with autism improve their social skills.