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Children at high risk for autism might be steered into more typical development in infancy, according to a small but hopeful new study out of the U.K. — the latest in a growing body of research to show that early interventions can alter the possibility of a child becoming autistic.
“Children with autism typically receive treatment beginning at three to four years old,” notes lead author Jonathan Green, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Manchester, in a press release. “But our findings suggest 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.”
For the study, published Wednesday in the Lancet Psychiatry journal, researchers looked at a group of 54 families with at least one autistic child. Since about 20 percent of siblings of autistic children end up developing the disorder, those undiagnosed babies, aged seven to 10 months, were the focus here; 28 of their parents were randomly assigned a series of visits from an intervention therapist, while parents of 26 received no intervention at all.
The intervention group received at least six home-based visits from a therapist who used video-feedback to help parents understand and respond to their baby’s communication — and, after five months, infants in families who received video therapy (modified version of what’s called Video Interaction for Promoting Positive Parenting Program) showed improvements in engagement, attention, and social behavior.
“Our findings indicate that using video feedback-based therapy to help parents understand and respond to their infant’s individual communication style during the first year of life may be able to modify the emergence of autism-related behaviors and symptoms,” Green notes. In a press conference on the findings, according to Time, he added, “Taken together, we think all of these improvements across different areas of measurement suggest that we improved risk markers for autism at this age. Therefore logically we can say that we potentially lowered the risk of later autism development in these infants. At this point we think the results are promising.”
The children in the study were among the youngest yet to be looked at for the possibility of modifying the development of autism. Previously, in 2014, researchers at the University of California, Davis, tested an intensive behavioral therapy model in which parents engaged in focused play with their 6-month-olds, with similarly positive results.
The latest results brought a new spark of hope to many in the autism community.
“We are thrilled with the outcome here because it points to new avenues to optimize outcomes for children at risk of autism,” says Andy Shih, senior vice president of scientific affairs for the non-profit organization Autism Speaks, which partially funded the U.K. study. He notes that what it’s found is that, possibly, by “enabling parents” in this way, you are “essentially preventing the emergence of more negative symptoms or outcomes down the road.”
Shih explains that the general perspective is that children with autism learn differently and have different needs than those of other kids. “It’s not possible to expect all parents to be able to understand and devise strategies for those special needs, so this is really giving those parents additional tools,” he says. This way of thinking is embraced for its positivity, Shih says — and is pretty much the opposite of the 1950s and ’60s, when poor parenting skills were blamed for the existence of autism and women were branded “refrigerator mothers” for their so-called detachment.
“Here, we’re not starting from a place with an assumption of deficit with the parents,” he says. Instead, he notes, “the idea is that parents play a large role when it comes to optimal outcomes.”