An intensive early intervention therapy for autistic children as young as 18 months can help decrease their autism symptoms and improve social skills, says a nationwide study by the University of California (UC) Davis.
The intervention method used in the study is called the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM). The intervention was developed by study author Sally Rogers, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences with the UC Davis MIND Institute, and Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer of Autism Speaks.
“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 said.
“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.”
The intervention therapy consists of:
- Play-based activity
- A relationship based approach
- Applied behavioral analysis teaching methods
“This may be the first demonstration that a behavioral intervention for autism is associated with changes in brain function as well as positive changes in behavior,” said Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, who funded the study. “By studying changes in the neural response to faces, Dawson and her colleagues have identified a new target and a potential biomarker that can guide treatment development.”
Researchers recruited 48 diverse male and female children aged 18 to 30 months in Sacramento, California and in Seattle, Washington. The ratio of male to female participants was more than 3 to 1. Autism is five times more prevalent in boys than girls.
Approximately half the children with autism were randomly selected to receive the ESDM intervention for 20 hours a week over a two year period. Parents were also trained to deliver the treatment as a core element in the intervention. Other participants with autism receive similar amounts of community-based interventions, evaluations, referrals and information on autism.
The study conclusion consisted of assessing the brain activity of the participants using electroencephalograms (EEGs) that measured brain activation while children viewed social stimuli (faces) and non-social stimuli (toys). Earlier studies have shown that typical young children show increased brain activity when viewing social stimuli in comparison to activity viewing objects. Children with autism have the opposite pattern.
- Twice as many children who received the ESDM intervention showed greater brain activity when viewing faces
- Eleven of the 15 children who received the ESDM intervention (73 percent) showed more brain activation when viewing social stimuli, while 12 of the 17 typical children (71 percent) showed the same pattern
- 64 percent of children with autism who received community intervention showed an “autistic” pattern of a greater response to toys rather than faces
MIND Institute researcher Rogers says that participants who received ESDM who showed greater brain activity when viewing faces demonstrated:
- improved social communication, including the ability to initiate interaction
- more eye contact
- more imitation of others
- improved cognition, language and daily living skills
A 2009 study found that ESDM recipients showed a more than three times increase in IQ and language than the recipients of community interventions
The study was published in the October 26 issue of Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.