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    Innovations in Medicine
    A WebMD special report that looks at breakthroughs and gaps in autism treatment – from infants to adults.
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    Undoing Autism One Toy at a Time

    'Play-Based Treatments' continued...

    “It’s altering what children find rewarding and what they’re paying attention to,” says Geraldine Dawson, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University.

    Normal babies learn by paying attention to people’s faces and voices, but babies with autism pay more attention to objects than people.

    “With intervention, what we do is we naturally use what the child is interested in,” says Dawson, who helped develop one of the first play-based treatments for children with autism, called the Early Start Denver Model.

    Parents, for example, might position themselves so that when the child is playing with a train, their face is right behind that train. Or they might hold parts of the train in their lap so if a child wants them, they have to interact with a person.

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    “Once they start paying attention to people, we open a wide range of learning opportunities,” she says.

    The 9-month treatment includes twice-weekly visits from the therapist, training for the parents, and group sessions at the center. After it’s over, researchers will continue to follow the children through age 3, with parents getting monthly "booster" sessions.

    The moms or dads and their kids -- including the little girl who kept throwing her toys -- are videotaped once a month to document their progress.

    In a later video with the little girl, her mother presents two different books, and waits for her to choose one. When she makes a clear choice, Mom opens the book. The little girl also gets a job to keep her engaged in the activity -- she has to turn the pages. Mom has learned to “read” at the pace the girl turns the pages. 

    As the little girl flips, Mom taps on the pictures in the same rhythm. “Brown bear, brown bear,” she says. “Green frog, green frog.”

    After a few pages, the little girls jumps up and walks away. She runs over to an easy chair and buries her face in the seat cushion. Mom knows she needs a break. It's hard for her to stay focused. She waits. Eventually, the girl comes back.

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