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Targeted Intervention Improves Social Skills in Toddlers with Autism


Previous research has shown that early intervention in children with autism is effective, leading to improved language skills and behavior. However, very few interventions have been studied on children younger than the age of 3. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has funded a study to look at starting therapy earlier, with positive results in improving social skills.

Focusing on Communication Domains Improves Toddler's Social Development

For the study, Rebecca Landa PhD of the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore and colleagues randomly assigned 50 autistic toddlers between the ages of 21 and 33 months to one of two six-month interventions, both of which incorporated classroom-based activities led by a trained provider and a home-based component involving the parents.

Part of the group participated in an intervention called “Interpersonal Synchrony” or IS which directly targets measures of social communication such as joint attention (spontaneously directing others’ attention to something of interest), shared positive affect (sharing emotions with others through facial expressions) and social-contingent imitation (imitating others’ actions while maintaining eye contact).

Read: Early Autism Intervention is Effective

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The researchers believe that the development of these skills positively impacts communication development to a greater degree than interventions not specifically targeting these domains. The remaining participants were encouraged to make the same intentional efforts to engage with others, but with less frequency. The children were assessed at the start and end of the intervention, and again six months later.

Children in both groups made improvements in social, cognitive and language skills, but those who received IS made greater and more rapid gains than the non-IS group. At the six month follow-up assessment, children who had not received the IS intervention had reduced communications skills, but those receiving IS had not lost the skills they had learned and were still making some progress, although at a slower rate.

Read: Autism Action Plan the Key to Delivering Better Services

"This is the first randomized controlled trial to examine an intervention focused on core social deficits of ASD in toddlers, and the first to show gains in these deficits resulting from intervention," said Landa. "Though preliminary, our findings provide promising evidence that such a supplementary curriculum can help improve social and communication skills in children younger than 3 who have ASD."

The study, funded through the Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment (STAART) Network, was published online Dec. 8, 2010, in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Source Reference:
Landa RJ, Holman KC, O’Neill AH, Stuart EA. Intervention Targeting Development of Socially Synchronous Engagement in Toddlers with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Trial. J Ch Psychol Psychiatry. 2010 Dec 8. [epub ahead of print]