Early Autism Intervention is Effective

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Researchers at the University of Washington and the University of California-Davis M.I.N.D. Institute have found that if a child is diagnosed with autism as early as 18 months of age, offering age-appropriate, effective therapy can lead to increased IQ levels and improved language skills and behavior.

Since 2007, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that physicians screen children between 18 and 24 months of age for autism, but the next steps on how to proceed with a child that young were left unclear.

Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer with the advocacy group Autism Speaks and Sally Rogers from M.I.N.D. developed the “Early Start Denver Model” of therapy (ESDM) and studied 48 children between the ages of 18 and 30 months with autism. The trial is the first to study children under 2 ½ years of age. Children that were enrolled in the 20-hour-per-week intervention program increased their IQ by nearly 18 points, about 10 points higher than the children getting the standard autism therapy currently offered in most communities, called Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). Scores for listening and understanding, motor skills, and self-care skills also improved.

ESDM is designed to address the needs of toddlers with autism as young as 12 months old. The therapy uses social interaction and communication, positive emotions, and promotion of eye contact, all of which are difficult for children with autism. It is delivered by trained therapists and their parents in the child's own home, rather than having a more adult-directed therapy. "It's a very pleasing kind of therapy, kids are happy. It is play, and it can happen everywhere," Rogers explains. Dawson adds that this type of intervention builds on a fun, positive relationship with the therapist.

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The authors stress that the therapy does not cure the disease of autism. However, almost 30% of the children receiving the therapy were re-diagnosed with a less severe form of the disease, called pervasive developmental disorder, after two years.

Because of the success of the small trial, it has been expanded to other sites to verify its effectiveness in young autistic children, including the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina.

Parents can be taught the ESDM therapy methods in as little as six hours of working with the therapists. The parents then use the skills in everyday settings. The therapy does have a downside – it is quite expensive. The treatment can cost about $50,000 a year. Some states require insurers to cover the costs, and Autism Speaks is working to expand those laws.

Approximately one in 100 children in the United States is affected with autism. Children can manifest as one of several neurodevelopmental disorders, characterized by social impairment, communication difficulties, and repetitive behaviors. The cause of autism is not yet known, but genetics and environmental triggers are believed to play a role. Early intervention has been shown to reduce disruptive behaviors and teach the child the skills needed for classroom learning and coping as the child grows into adulthood.

The study is published online in the journal Pediatrics, by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Autism Speaks is the nation’s largest autism science and advocacy organization. It is dedicated to funding research into the causes, prevention, and treatment for autism. More than $30 million each year is given to organizations involved in research, including the Autism Treatment Network, Autism Genetic Resource Exchange, Autism Clinical Trials Network, and the Autism Tissue Program. The website is located at www.autismspeaks.org.

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