Early Intervention May Help Autistic Toddlers
Study Finds Comprehensive Home-Based Program Improves IQ, Language, Social Ability
Nov. 30, 2009 -- A new, home-based program for
toddlers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
that combines behavioral change techniques in a playful environment boosted the
children's IQ, language ability, and social interaction skills more than a
community-based program, according to a new study.
The home-based program included up to 20 hours a week of therapist
intervention, plus the intervention of parents, who were taught the same
''This intervention is designed to be appropriate for children as young as
12 months of age," says study researcher Geraldine Dawson, PhD, chief science
officer of Autism Speaks, a science and advocacy organization. She conducted
the research while a professor of psychology and director of the University of
Washington's Autism Center, Seattle.
''We found that after two years the children who received the intervention
had made significant gains in their IQ, their language ability, their adaptive
behavior, and their social interaction," Dawson tells WebMD.
The IQ of children in the new home-based program -- called the Early Start
Denver Model -- rose on average about 18 points after two years, she says. The
IQ of the children in the community-based comparison group increased seven
''When you see an IQ gain that is this large, the child is much more likely
to be able to enter a regular classroom and develop friendships," Dawson
The study is published online in the journal Pediatrics.
Intervention in Young Children
Early intervention for children with autism, a developmental disorder
estimated to affect one in 150 or more U.S. children, has been evaluated for
years. More than 20 years ago, a report of early behavioral intervention found
that nearly half the children given the intervention could be mainstreamed into
regular classrooms and had IQ gains.
But experts still disagree about whether early intervention makes a
long-term difference in autism, which is marked by impairments in communication
and socialization, and repetitive, disruptive behavior.
The new study is believed to be the first scientific study that looked at
intervening in children so young. "Our entire group was under 2 and a half,"
says Sally Rogers, PhD, professor of psychiatry, University of California Davis
MIND Institute, who developed the intervention with Dawson.
The intervention combines an established approach known as applied
behavioral analysis (teaching children new behaviors and changing harmful ones
by repetition and practice) with relationship-based techniques presented in a
playful manner that interests the child. "When you are working with very young
children, it makes sense you would use a more play-based approach," Dawson
For instance, a session might include playing with balls, with the therapist
tossing them into a bucket, repeating the word ball, and inviting the child to
The researchers evaluated 48 children diagnosed with ASD at 18-30 months
old, randomly assigning them to the intervention group or referring them to
community-based programs. The children had either autistic disorder or
pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified (PDD NOS), a milder
condition in which some features of autism are identified. At the end, two
years later, just three had dropped out of the study.
The goal was to tap into the so-called ''plasticity'' of the young brain and capitalize
on the learning potential of the children, thus limiting the damaging effects
Those in the early-start model averaged about 15.2 hours a week with the
therapist, although 20 were made available. Parents logged, on
average, another 16.3 hours a week and the kids got about 5.2 hours in
other therapies, such as speech therapy.
Children in the comparison group got an average of 9.1 hours of individual
therapy and 9.3 hours weekly of group interventions.