Headline said “Could New Study Eliminate Symptoms of Autism in Children?”

early startI’m sure that headline caught your attention, just as it did mine. It is a real headline that came across my news alerts yesterday afternoon. My immediate reaction was “if it is that simple, I can think of all sorts of new studies to do” but of course no study will eliminate symptoms of ASD or anything else. There was, however, a real study from the MIND Institute at UC Davis that made the headlines, and helps to demonstrate the importance of early identification and intervention.

The study in question was actually a pilot study of Infant Start – a program that trains parents to use some specific behavioral interventions with children who show some symptoms suggestive of ASD during the first year of life. The pilot involved only 7 children, ages 6 – 15 months, and their parents. The parents received 12 hours of training (12 one-hour sessions) that focused on actions the parents could take during their usual interactions with their child designed to increase the infant’s level of functioning in areas that are challenging for children with ASD. Follow up visits demonstrated that 6 of the 7 children had no measurable delays in learning skills and language use by the time they reached age 2 to 3.

But what does this study mean? How can we evaluate the results and use this to help address the challenges faced by children with ASD every day?

We need to acknowledge that this is a very small study – 7 carefully selected children. No study this small should be considered proof of anything. And, as with all well-designed studies, as many variables as possible were controlled by the selection of the children – they came from English-speaking families, had normal vision and hearing, no major medical conditions, and lived within an hour of the MIND Institute. This means that the same intervention may not have the same result in infants who do not meet these criteria. The parent trainings were very structured and each parent received the identical training. The children demonstrated symptoms that are associated with ASD, but had not been diagnosed as having ASD (after all, they were only 6 – 15 months old and the average age of diagnosis remain near to 4 years old).

But there is lots of other information and knowledge that really supports the findings of this study! Earlier research studies on the Early Start Denver Model (a specific use of a number of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) interventions) have found improvements in IQ, language, and adaptive behaviors by children with ASD. One study even found that children receiving these interventions showed changes in their brain activity after treatment. Looking outside the realm of ASD, Dr. Bruce Perry’s research on the impact of trauma on young children has demonstrated that external forces can result in changes in the way the brain develops. Other research across a number of fields has described the idea of neuroplasticity or brain plasticity – the brain’s ability to change its organizational structure by forming new neural connections (you can read a good description of neuroplasticity here).

By putting all of these pieces together, it is reasonable that certain structured activities during infancy can actually change the way a child’s brain functions. Since ASD is a neurodevelopmental disability, the symptoms we see are a result of the way the individual’s brain functions. If we can change that, there will be changes that can be observed in behaviors. In the end that is what this pilot study and the other studies have demonstrated – behavioral interventions can change brain function which can impact a child’s development and behaviors.

Russell J. Bonanno, M.Ed.
TAP Program Manager

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