Autism Intervention Early On Has Many Benefits
Early intervention therapy specially designed to improve cognitive and linguistic skills among autistic children as young as 12 months old has been found to be effective in improving their social skills and decreasing symptoms associated with the disorder, according to the results of a new nationwide study.
The Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), which was developed by Sally Rogers, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and a researcher with the UC Davis MIND Institute, and Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer of the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) research and advocacy organization Autism Speaks, is effective in improving participants’ brain responses to social cues, according to a randomized controlled study published Friday on the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry website.
“We know that infant brains are quite malleable and previously demonstrated that this therapy capitalizes on the potential of learning that an infant brain has in order to limit autism’s deleterious effects,” Rogers, one of the authors of the study, said in a prepared statement.
“The findings on improved behavioral outcomes and the ability to normalize brain activity associated with social activities signify that there is tremendous potential for the brains of children with autism to develop and grow more normally,” she added.
In a separate statement Autism Speaks called this “the first controlled study of an intensive early intervention that demonstrates both improvement of social skills and brain responses to social stimuli resulting from intensive early intervention.”
The program, which is described by the organization as a combination of applied behavioral analysis (ABA) teaching methods with developmental “relationship-based” approaches, had previously been found to significantly improve cognitive, language, and daily living skills in comparison to other autistic children who participated in other forms of early-learning programs.
According to Autism Speaks, “On average, the preschoolers receiving ESDM for two years improved 17.5 standard score points compared to 7.0 points in the community intervention comparison group.” A total of 48 children of various races, all of whom were suffering from autism-spectrum disorders and all of whom were between the ages of 18 and 30 months, participated in the survey.
They were randomly assigned either to the ESDM program or to an alternative form of community intervention for a two-year period. Afterwards, their EEG activity was measured while viewing faces (social stimuli) or toys (non-social stimuli).
“Twice as many of the children who received the ESDM intervention showed greater brain activation when viewing faces rather than when viewing objects — a demonstration of normalized brain activity,” the UC Davis MIND Institute explained. “Eleven of the 15 children who received the ESDM intervention, 73 percent, showed more brain activation when viewing faces than toys. Similarly, 12 of the 17 typically developing children, or 71 percent, showed the same pattern. But the majority — 64 percent — of the recipients of the community intervention showed the opposite, ‘autistic’ pattern, i.e., greater response to toys than faces. Only 5 percent showed the brain activation of typical children.”
“Further, the children receiving ESDM who had greater brain activity while viewing faces also had fewer social-pragmatic problems and improved social communication, including the ability to initiate interactions, make eye contact and imitate others,” they added. “Use of the ESDM intervention has been shown to improve cognition, language and daily living skills. A study published in 2009 found that ESDM recipients showed more than three times as much gain in IQ and language than the recipients of community interventions.”
The research was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and by a postdoctoral fellowship from Autism Speaks. In addition to the UC Davis MIND Center and Autism Speaks, other institutions participating in the study included the Center on Human Development and Disability (CHDD) at University of Washington and Vanderbilt University.
“We know that infant brains are quite malleable and had previously demonstrated that this therapy capitalizes on the potential of learning that an infant brain has in order to limit autism’s deleterious effects,” Rogers said. “The findings on improved behavioral outcomes and the ability to normalize brain activity associated with social activities has tremendous potential for children with ASD.”
“For the first time, parents and practitioners have evidence that early intervention can result in an improved course of both brain and behavioral development in young children. It is crucial that all children with autism have access to early intervention which can promote the most positive long-term outcomes,” Dawson added.