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Finding the Right Autism Treatment

Early, intense therapy works, but hundreds of other treatments being used are untested.

Earlier Autism Treatment Is Better Autism Treatment continued...

Why is this such a big deal? Just about everybody agrees that whatever it is that goes wrong in autism goes wrong in the brain. And while a child's brain continues to develop through the teen years, the most intensive period of change is the early years of life.

And now researchers are finding effective treatments for young children. One is Rebecca Landa, PhD, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders and the REACH research program at Baltimore's Kennedy Krieger Institute.

Landa's current project is her Early Achievements program, which extends individualized, behavior-oriented autism treatment to 2-year-old children. At this age, most children with autism get a weekly or monthly visit from a therapist who trains parents to do behavioral interventions in the child's natural environment.

They get far more in Landa's classes, in which a small number of children get both one-on-one and group experiences. This is a challenge for any child this young, but a particular challenge for kids with autism, who face a range of problems with communication and social skills. They may have trouble learning to talk, imitating others, sharing emotions, and paying attention. They may show interest in a very few things. They may engage in repetitive, self-stimulating behaviors (which parents and autism professionals often call "stimming.")

"They are still babies. It is usually the first time they have been away from their parents -- this is very hard for kids with autism," Landa tells WebMD. "We start with, not a blank slate, but with very raw material. The challenge for us is to choose the right toys and deliver them in the right activities to draw these kids attention and keep it for more than 30 seconds. And then we must be patient as these kids resist being with us and with other kids. We are constantly reassuring them until they get to the point where they are able to initiate interactions with other kids."

Behavior therapy targeted to the individual child's needs is at the forefront of treatments researchers are trying today with ASD kids. Of all the treatments that parents try for their child, behavior therapy is the only one scientifically shown to help children with autism.

"Nobody responsible in the field say this cures autism, but many of these children can be improved substantially, dramatically, and some -- a very small percentage -- improve to the point you could not differentiate them from typical individuals," says Laura Schreibman, PhD, director of the autism research program and distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego.

In Landa's program, it focuses nearly as much on parent and family training as it does on the child with autism.

"When you first get a diagnosis of autism, you are not ready for that. Your world is shaken. And suddenly your child is not who you thought they were. 'How do I play with my child?' 'How do I understand who my child is?' 'What do I do about it?'" Landa says. "We teach them the beauty within their child."

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