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Could Early Intervention Eliminate Autism?

Study suggests early intervention could eliminate autism in babies
Photograph by Getty Images

The questions of how and why exactly autism is caused have been plaguing experts for decades. Ask any parent, and they just want to know one thing: Is there anything they can do to prevent it? Well, finally, a new pilot study is answering that question with a resounding “yes” — as long as we start acting early.

According to the experts behind the small study, parents can greatly reduce the symptoms of autism in their babies by simply playing and interacting with them differently during that pivotal first year.

"The goal [of the study] was to see whether it was feasible to locate children who had autism symptoms younger than 12 months, and then provide intervention through their parents," said Sally Rogers, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences with the University of California-Davis MIND Institute and an author on the study. Speaking with The Huffington Post, she continued that "if it was possible, we wanted to see whether the intervention demonstrated benefits for those children."

During the study, experts put seven babies into a treatment group — all were aged 7–15 months, and all showed early signs of autism (including a lowered interest in interacting and repetitive yet abnormal behaviors). The other children included in the study were split into four comparison groups, separated by the following similarities: those who were at a lower risk of developing autism; those who were at a higher risk (mostly because of a family member or sibling with the spectrum disorder); those who had developed the disorder by age 3; and those who had shown early symptoms, but had received treatment at an older age.

Rogers noted that babies in the treatment group actually showed considerably more autism symptoms by 9-months-old than others placed in comparison groups. But this, she says, was not actually a surprise, since an increase in developmental delays as babies get older are often a red flag for the onset of autism over time.

However, by 18–36 months old, those very same kids had significantly lower autism severity scores than those who did not undergo the treatment.

As for what the treatment entailed, Rogers explains it's based on the "Early Denver Start Model." This method focuses on increasing a baby's attention to their parents' faces and voices through various different tactics. To do so, experts worked closely with parents on how to use toys to boost their child's social engagement, encouraged them to imitate their infants' sounds and actions, and suggested other fun playtime activities that would boost parent-infant interaction.

The training period itself lasted 12 weeks total before parents headed home to continue the new techniques on their own for another six months. During this time, researchers monitored how well the parents actually delivered those techniques. They continued to monitor the children's development all the way until age three — the age at which most kids are able to be formally diagnosed.

"All of the babies, except one who continued to show high levels of delays throughout, started to show a reversal in those increasing delays ... and six of the seven caught up by the time they were 2 to 3," said Rogers. "Of those six, five did not have a diagnosis of anything related to autism, and one had a mild diagnosis at age 3."

"Study after study has demonstrated that parents of children with ASD have excellent parenting skills," Rogers continued. "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." At its core, the intervention provides parents with additional strategies to engage their babies, and reassures them they're on the right track and may simply need to persist longer than typically feels right, learning to read their child's subtle cues.

The new research, which experts note is highly preliminary, was published online Tuesday in The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Yet despite its early stages, Gerard Costa, director of the Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health at Montclair State University, has already deemed the findings both "wonderful" and "very encouraging."

"The findings are clearly saying what we've always felt to be the case, which is that early intervention can make an enormous difference," Costa said. "The infant brain is growing at a rate that is unparalleled in the rest of our lives, from the last trimester of pregnancy through the first two years of life."

While more research is still needed, these findings on their own are pretty amazing, adding to theory that the key to autism prevention may in fact lie in human relationships and early engagement.

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