Posted by Alycia Halladay, Ph.D., Autism Speaks director of research for environmental sciences
Autism Speaks Toddler Treatment Network met this week at the International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) in Toronto to share findings and ideas about early interventions for autism. The meeting was attended by 65 researchers conducting studies in North America and abroad.
The events leading up to this meeting are themselves amazing. When Autism Speaks began funding research on early intervention in 2007, we knew little about how to identify and help toddlers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). There were few good trials looking at the benefits of early intervention programs. Flash forward to 2012. We have completed many clinical studies and understand so much more about how and why early interventions work. Our Toddler Treatment Network has expanded from the original seven Autism Speaks-funded studies to over a dozen studies taking place this year around the world.
We spent the day learning about the latest findings from this research. I see it as falling into five important areas:
- Earlier is better. We know that earlier interventions produce greater gains for individuals with ASD. This year, we even heard about early intervention studies enrolling infants at high risk of developing autism. This research is exciting but very preliminary. We don’t know yet whether it produces benefits or what they might be.
- Intensity matters. It’s also clearer than ever that the benefits of quality therapy increase with the number of hours a child is receiving. This encourages us to look for practical ways to maximize the amount of time children are actively engaged in therapy.
- Parent participation. One potential way to increase intervention hours is for parents to continue practice at home. The latest findings support the idea that this can enhance the benefits of professionally delivered therapy. Parent-led activities also expand therapy opportunities into broader environments. This may be important for helping children transfer skills from one situation to the next.
- Individualized goals. Each child with ASD will respond best to strategies tailored to his or her personal needs and skills. Some children need more emphasis on communication skills. Others need greater help with social interaction or challenging behavior.
- Delivering evidence-based interventions to the community. Developing and studying the benefits of early interventions is not enough. We have much work ahead to move effective interventions into our communities. We must redouble our efforts to make sure these programs are available to all children with ASD. At this year’s meeting, we discussed how Autism Speaks Move the Needle initiative is advancing this important work.
Lastly, we realize that early interventions labeled “developmental” are less likely to be covered by health insurance than are more accepted “behavioral” therapies such as Applied Behavioral Analysis. Examples of a developmental approach targets early autism development milestones such as imitation and meaningful gesturing. But there is no hard and fast line between behavioral and developmental approaches. Rather, developmental interventions can be seen as behavioral interventions adapted for a younger “developing” age group. This is an important issue, and one that Autism Speaks is addressing with research and with advocacy to help ensure that a broader range of effective interventions are covered by state and private insurance.
For more news and commentary, please see our 2012 IMFAR page.
Autism Speaks Toddler Treatment Network supports a consortium of research sites studying behavioral interventions that are appropriate for children younger than 18 months. You can learn more about the early intervention research Autism Speaks is funding using our Grant Search.