Although previous studies have found that early intervention can be helpful for preschool-aged children, interventions for children who are toddlers are just now being tested. As 2009 came to a close, the results were unveiled for the first controlled study of an intensive early intervention appropriate for children with ASD who are less than 2½ years of age. Published in Pediatrics, results of this study showed that a novel early intervention program was effective for improving IQ, language ability, and adaptive behavior in children as young as 18 months1.
The intervention, called the Early Start Denver Model, combines applied behavioral analysis (ABA) teaching methods with developmental ‘relationship-based' approaches, thereby blending the rigor of ABA with play-based routines that focus on building a relationship with the child. Children in the study were separated into two groups, one that received 20 hours a week of the intervention – two two-hour sessions five days a week – from University of Washington specialists. They also received five hours a week of parent-delivered therapy. Children in the second group were referred to community-based programs for therapy. Researchers closely monitored the progress of both groups.
At the beginning of the study there was no difference in functioning between the two groups. At the conclusion of the study, the IQs of the children in the intervention group had improved by an average of close to 18 points, compared to only 7 points in the comparison group. The intervention group also had a nearly 19-point improvement in receptive language (listening and understanding) compared to approximately 10 points in the control group. Whereas only one child in the community-based intervention group had an improved diagnosis, seven of the children in the intervention group had enough improvement in overall skills to warrant a change in diagnosis from autism to the milder condition known as ‘pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified.'
While the youngest children in the study were 18 months old, this particular intervention is designed to be appropriate for children with ASD as young as 12 months of age. Given that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all 18- and 24- month-old children be screened for ASD, it is crucial that we are able to offer parents effective therapies for children within this age range. This new study strongly affirms the positive outcomes of early intervention and the need for the earliest possible start.