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Early Intervention May Help Autistic Toddlers

Study Finds Comprehensive Home-Based Program Improves IQ, Language, Social Ability

Intervention in Young Children continued...

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 says.

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 mimic her.

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 of autism.

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.

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