Could Earlier Treatment Have Prevented My Child’s Autism?

March 16, 2012

 This week’s “Got Questions?” answer comes from psychologist Sally J. Rogers, Ph.D., whose research at the University of California-Davis focuses on early intervention for autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

I have a question as a mother grappling with guilt. I read about an Autism Speaks study on the development of early interventions for babies who don’t yet have the full syndrome. Does this mean that, had my son received earlier intervention, today he would not have autism?

This is such an important question and one that more and more parents are asking as we develop earlier interventions with proven benefits.

We know that good early intervention with toddlers and preschoolers has powerful effects and improves function as well as long-term outcomes. Based on our understanding of early intervention with toddlers, we have reason to hope that interventions with babies may offer additional benefits.

However, at the present time we have no evidence that the interventions we are trying in infants have beneficial effects, let alone whether they might prevent autism in some children.

We must continue to follow these infants as they mature. We must also apply great scientific rigor to evaluating the extent of any benefit. The entire early childhood period is a time of massive brain development and maturation. However, new learning continues to stimulate brain development throughout life, even for adults.

From your question, I imagine that you enrolled your child in the best interventions you could put together as soon as you had a clear diagnosis and access to services. This is the best that any parent can do in supporting a child’s development.

As for the potential to prevent autism before it “fully develops,” in some cases early intervention in toddlers and preschoolers does seem to change the trajectory of a child’s development. But this is not prevention. This is treatment response. Sometimes it results in such significant progress that, by school age, a child no longer meets all of the criteria we use to identify autism. However, this child may continue to struggle with related issues such as anxiety, attention problems or other difficulties.

In general, high-quality early intervention reduces developmental and/or autistic symptoms and results in improved function and quality of life. However, it’s also very important to keep in mind that we have clear evidence that persons with autism remain responsive to interventions throughout their lives, including adulthood. As therapists, we’ve all seen instances of excellent response to various interventions for teens and adults, including those with severe disabilities.

To explore more of our early intervention research, click here. Like all our funded research, these studies are made possible by our donors and volunteers. Thank you!

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