Early intervention makes a big difference for autistic children

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Employing educational and psychological intervention techniques from a very young age can make a world of difference in autistic children’s development, according to research published online today in the journal Pediatrics. At the University of Washington in Seattle, researchers conducted a five-year study of 48 autistic children between the ages of 18 and 30 months. The toddlers and their parents were divided into two groups that were both closely followed by researchers—one that was directed to existing autism therapies in the community, and the other that participated in a relationship-based intervention known as the Early Start Denver Model. The researchers found that, while, early on in the study period there were no significant developmental differences between the groups, by the end of the study, children who participated in the early intervention program had dramatically larger increases on measurements such as IQ and receptive language. Seven of the children in the early intervention group demonstrated such improvement that their diagnosis was changed to a milder condition on the autism spectrum known as pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS).

Children in the intervention program participated in 20 hours per week of specialist intervention, in addition to another five hours of parent-led therapy (after parents were instructed about best methods by specialists). By the end of the five-year period, children in the study group experienced an average IQ increase of 18 points, compared with just 4 points in the group that relied on existing area programs. Additionally, children in the intervention group showed an 18 point improvement on measures of listening and understanding skills, compared with a 10 point improvement in the other group.

The researchers say that the study underscores the importance of early intervention using behavior-based therapies. Previous research has demonstrated the benefit of early intervention for children, but this is the first controlled study to examine the impact of the technique on children so young. Though the youngest study participants in this case were 18 months-old, researchers say the strategies are in fact designed for children as young as 12 months.

This particular approach, using the Early Start Denver Model, combines leading behavioral analysis techniques with relationship-based therapies—both involving the parents, and through activities with researchers that are designed to infuse play with educational opportunity. In addition to the fact that the sessions focus strongly on interaction with others, they were also conducted in familiar environments—the children’s homes—both factors that may have contributed to their success, researchers say.