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    On the Cutting Edge of Autism Treatment

    Teaching autistic children how to engage in imaginative play is one of many new techniques in autism treatment.

    Emerging Treatments

    Recently, Hollander studied the use of Prozac for treating repetitive behavior in children with autism. Those who took low doses of the drug in liquid form showed better improvement than those who took a placebo. But selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac are not stand-alone treatments for autism.

    "The treatment of choice for most individuals is an integrated approach," Hollander tells WebMD.

    At the University of California San Francisco, professor Michael Merzenich, PhD, is working on a computer program to teach language skills to autistic kids through what is called "neural retraining." It may sound like science fiction, but it's not all that speculative.

    Scientists have come to understand that the brain is not hardwired, but very flexible, or plastic. There are software programs, such as one called Fast ForWord, that can train the brains of kids with impaired language ability to process speech better.

    "We have very strong documentation that this kind of brain-plasticity-based training can have an effect," Merzenich tells WebMD.

    But programs that exist now are too complex for many autistic kids to use. "The ways that these programs have been designed for nonautistic children just don't apply to most autistic children," Merzenich says.

    Once Merzenich and his team finish building their program, they will have to put it through years of rigorous testing, which he says they hope to begin later in 2005.

    Although its methods are state of the art, the New England Center for Children prides itself on only applying treatment that is backed up by solid research.

    "People are faced with a raft of alternative treatments that have no merit," Vincent Strully Jr., the NECC's founder and executive director, tells WebMD. He counts special diets, secretin treatment, and mercury detoxification among those.

    "We're not claiming any cure," he says, but the center's approach makes a difference. "It's advancing the lives of these kids dramatically."

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