Early Baby Therapy Could Reduce Clinical Autism Diagnoses By Two-Thirds

Only 7 percent of babies who received treatment were diagnosed with autism by the age of three, compared with 21 percent of those who only received standard care. Image: Nazarova Mariia/Shutterstock.com

A novel video-based therapy may be effective in reducing the likelihood that babies showing early signs of autism receive a later diagnosis of the condition, according to a new study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. Compared to infants who received only standard care, those who underwent this tailored pre-emptive treatment were three times less likely to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by the age of three.

Highlighting the significance of this finding, study author Andrew Whitehouse explained in a statement that “no trial of a pre-emptive infant intervention, applied prior to diagnosis, has to date shown such an effect to impact diagnostic outcomes – until now.”

Indeed, because autism is generally not diagnosed until around three years of age, developmental therapies are typically not administered during early infancy. The purpose of this study, therefore, was to determine whether or not it is possible to support development through early intervention to the point that children no longer meet criteria for autism.

To do so, the researchers recruited 89 children between the ages of nine and 14 months, all of whom showed atypical behavior relating to a number of measures such as spontaneous eye contact, social gestures, imitation, and response to name. Half of these children received only “usual care”, while the other half received 10 home visits from a trained therapist over a five-month period. Crucially, all parent-infant interactions during these sessions were filmed and analyzed by the therapists.

By providing feedback on these recordings, therapists were able to help parents better understand their children’s unique set of characteristics and modify their own responses in order to create a social environment that fostered development. In this way, treatment was tailored to each individual child and focused on promoting the social and cognitive skills that they needed most.

The study authors continued to monitor all participants’ development until the age of three, at which point 7 percent of those who received this treatment were diagnosed with ASD. In contrast, 21 percent of children who received no such care were diagnosed with the condition.

“The children falling below the diagnostic threshold still had developmental difficulties, but by working with each child’s unique differences, rather than trying to counter them, the therapy has effectively supported their development through the early childhood years,” said Whitehouse.

The study authors describe the reduction in symptom intensity brought about by the therapy as “small but enduring”, and say that longer-term studies that follow individuals through to adulthood are needed to confirm the efficacy of this approach.

 
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