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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...

Every week the parents have to tell the class something wonderful about their child. At first, most parents cant think of anything.

"A week or so later, they can't wait to come in and tell us what wonderful thing their child did last. This lets parents focus on what is good, instead of something panicky," Landa says. "We teach them how to interact with their child in helpful, fun ways. We take care of the whole family and it is very powerful."

Debbie Page and her son Gabe enrolled in Landa's experimental program. Gabe had been diagnosed with "mild" autism -- but when Page heard what Landa expected the kids to learn, she was more than doubtful.

"I remember her saying the kids would transition themselves from one activity to another by checking their picture schedule and singing a little song," she says. "All the parents were nodding and I nodded, too, but inside I thought, 'There is no way he will do this.' My son screamed any time a demand was placed on him -- he didn't even respond to his name. I thought we'd be the first ones to get kicked out of the study."

Not two weeks later, Page got a call from Gabe's teacher saying that her son had checked his schedule all by himself.

"I knew then I would never say 'No way' about Gabe again. He has continued to amaze us," she says. "At first he did not know how to play with toys -- he didn't understand what play was. Six months later, he was engaging in play with other children. My father describes it as a light switch being turned on. ... I had never heard Gabe sing. The best he could do was to make a hand motion when I sang The Wheels on the Bus. But after six months, he was a songbird. It was really amazing."

Landa warns that not every child makes this kind of progress. However, she says that more than 60% of the kids in the program gain six months of language skills during the six-month program. That's not bad, given that the kids did not yet have 12-month language skills at an average age of 27 months. And Landa says a "large number" of the students gained 12 months of language skills during the program.

Do these gains endure? Landa says there's strong evidence they do, although the program only began in 2005. Gabe, now 5 years old, was fortunate enough to graduate into Baltimore County school programs with Kennedy-Krieger-trained teachers. This year, his teachers placed him in a regular pre-kindergarten program in a class of 20 children.

"By this kind of early intervention at age 2 -- and now we have a study with 1-year-olds -- when you get them really young and teach them how to learn, they are different kids," Landa says. "What would happen if you waited until they were 3? I wonder how much more capable we could make them by starting even earlier."

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