Diverting Autism

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Have you seen the new study by Sally Rogers, PhD, and Sally Ozonoff, PhD, of the MIND Institute at the University of California-Davis? Wow! This pilot study of the Infant Start program showed incredible gains in addressing the symptoms of autism in infants. Details are available in the September issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, but we’re excited by what the results say about parent involvement and its impact on children’s development.

“Most of the children in the study, six out of seven, caught up in all of their learning skills and their language by the time they were two to three,” said Rogers in a statement. These children were seven infants (ages six to 15 months) who were flagged as at risk for autism due to symptoms such as abnormal fixations, repetitive motions and decreased eye contact. In the 12-week, low-intensity treatment program, parents were taught an intervention that encouraged social engagement with their babies. After 12 weeks learning the techniques, the parents maintained this intervention for six more months, and the evaluation of their babies continued for another 36 months.

Four comparison groups were matched from a study of infant siblings of autism. What were the results? The treated group of seven infants was significantly more symptomatic than most of the comparison groups at nine months of age but was significantly less symptomatic than the two most affected groups between 18 and 36 months. Which means, the children were developing increased symptoms of autism as compared to the control groups, but the intervention mitigated this impact over time. Basically ridding the children of all their delays and symptoms of autism, for six out of seven.

Exciting, right? But what, exactly, were the parents taught?

  • Drawing infant attention to the parent’s face and voice
  • Parent imitation of the infant’s sounds and actions
  • Use of toys to support the baby’s attention to social cues
  • Enjoyable activities that promote parent-infant interaction

The infants learned something most babies are born with – to find enjoyment and meaning through engagement with their parents. The parent’s face and voice became naturally rewarding as the infant learned to connect communication with the experiences of eating, nursing, being held and soothed.  “It was the parents – not therapists – who did that,” Rogers said. “Parents are there every day with their babies. It’s the little moments of diapering, feeding, playing on the floor, going for a walk, being on a swing, that are the critical learning moments for babies. Those moments are what parents can capitalize on in a way that nobody else really can.

And it is precisely this unique position that makes parents the key to treating autism. Yet we all know that this type of parenting is not necessarily intuitive and needs to be taught. Finally there’s a program developed to do just that with infants.

There is hope of improvement in addressing the symptoms of autism through intervention. Granted this study was small, but the message of improvement was impressive – six out of seven is significant. More studies must be done to evaluate the effectiveness of Infant Start.

Parents are key to any child’s development. There must be more parent education programs to develop parent intervention skills for autism. All therapies should include parent education to increase the treatment impact and build life-long capacity in the family. Parents need to learn skills that work within everyday moments.

And finally, parents need to know that their child needs something different from them. Treating infants for autism is revolutionary and in line with everything we know about brain and language development, yet it can never get started when the average age of diagnosis is ages four or five in Minnesota. Both physicians and psychologists who diagnosis and public entities that identify children for service must be on alert for early detection. A research report was published this year that described diagnosis as early as two months. And we’re excited about the new diagnostic possibilities emerging from that research.

As new developments keep coming in about brain development, early detection and innovative interventions, we are delighted to see that they reflect what parents have known all along; all children can be engaged socially and it is through this engagement that autism is most effectively treated.

Read our earlier posts on this topic: Autism in Infancy and Language Development.

Author: Editorial Team

A select group of our board members who have something to say, but want to say it together. We also use this byline for those who wish to write anonymously.

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