A new study suggests that parents can significantly improve social, communication and sensory abilities in one-year-olds at risk for autism, using a relatively simple set of strategies in the home.
In the study – funded by Autism Speaks and the Ireland Family Foundation – the parent-led therapy even outperformed conventional early-intervention programs involving professional therapists. The results appear in Autism Research and Treatment.
At present, autism can’t be reliably diagnosed until around 24 months. However screening questionnaires can identify developmental delays associated with increased risk of autism in toddlers.
See “Screen Your Child,” on the Autism Speaks website.
“Early identification of autism has great promise for improving outcomes if we can provide practical interventions that parents can use in the home,” comments Andy Shih, Autism Speaks senior vice president for scientific affairs. Dr. Shih helps coordinate the activities of the Autism Speaks Toddler Treatment Network, which includes the team that conducted the new study.
Developmental psychologist Grace Baranek led the investigation at the University of North Carolina. Her team used a screening questionnaire called the First Year Inventory to identify eighteen 1-year-olds as “at risk” for autism.
They referred five of the families to their community’s early intervention program for services. Early intervention services typically include speech, physical and occupational therapy.
The other eleven families received Adapted Responsive Teaching (ART), the experimental, home-based intervention. Over six months, therapists met with each family weekly for one-hour home visits. They taught parents how to use the program’s interactive strategies in their daily routines.
“Each child has different strengths and weaknesses, so the intervention is individualized to the needs of the child,” Dr. Baranek says.
Fostering “pivotal” behaviors
Dr. Baranek and her colleagues designed ART to foster behaviors that provide a foundation for more advanced social, communication and sensory skills. These “pivotal” behaviors include social play, shared attention, adaptability and coping. To promote shared attention, for example, the parent imitates the baby’s actions and sounds to encourage back-and-forth exchanges.
The researchers assessed the development of the 18 children at the start of the trial, at 6 months and at 20 months. During this time, the children in the ART group made significantly greater progress than those receiving the early intervention services offered in their community. This progress was consistent across a range of behaviors including responsiveness to language, social cues and other forms of sensory input.
Based on the promising early results, the National Center for Special Education Research has awarded the team a $2.5 million grant to expand their study to include more than a hundred families. (Recruitment is complete.)
“We’re encouraged to see how our investment in Dr. Baranek’s pilot study led to significant federal funding to advance a very promising early intervention,” Dr. Shih says. Similarly positive results are beginning to come in from studies of related parent-led interventions that Autism Speaks and other funding agencies are supporting at other sites across the United States as well as in overseas communities with extremely limited professional autism services.
Read more about the Autism Speaks Toddler Treatment Network here.
For more on early intervention strategies, also see “Study Finds Preschoolers with Autism Vary Greatly in Areas of Progress” and Video Feedback Helps Parents Engage Infants at Risk for Autism.