Early Intervention Improves Autism Symptoms

Children With Autism Improve After Taking Group-Based Program Focusing on Social Development, Researchers Say

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on December 07, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 8, 2010 -- A six-month, group-based early intervention program with a special emphasis on social development can improve some of the core symptoms of autism spectrum disorder in children as young as 2, according to a study in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

“This and other autism studies suggest that the ‘wait and see’ method, which is often recommended to concerned parents, could lead to missed opportunities for early intervention,” Rebecca Landa, PhD, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders and the REACH research program at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, says in a news release. “By acting early, we are providing toddlers tools and skills to increase social opportunities throughout their lifetime and positioning them to have the best possible outcomes.”

About one in 110 children in the U.S has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to the CDC. ASD is the umbrella term for a group of developmental disorders that can range from mild to severe and that affect a person’s ability to communicate and relate to others.

Early Achievements Program Improves Autism Symptoms

In the new study of the Early Achievements program, 50 2-year-olds were divided into two groups that met four days a week in a classroom setting for 2.5 hours a day for six months. One of the groups placed a stronger focus on developing social behaviors. For example, social imitation was taught during normal classroom activities, while children were enticed and rewarded for imitating their teachers’ behaviors.

Both groups showed improvements in language and cognitive abilities, but children who received socially directed interventions got significantly better at social imitation and sharing emotions with others through facial expressions and eye contact.

The amount of times these children initiated “joint attention” more than tripled over the course of the 6-month study, showing a trend in differences between the two groups that did not reach statistical significance. Joint attention refers to following the gaze of another person or using your eyes or hands to direct someone’s attention toward an object or event.

The children in the socially directed group made about 10 months of gains in terms of nonverbal communications in six months compared to toddlers in the other group. And many of these improvements were maintained throughout a six-month follow-up period, the researchers report. Now the researchers hope to study group-based, socially directed interventions among older children.

Social Imitation Improved

“One of the earliest core symptoms of autism is a lack of social imitation [and] toddlers with autism who received this supplemental intervention improved in their ability to imitate others,” Geraldine Dawson, PhD, chief science officer of the advocacy group Autism Speaks and a research professor in the department of psychiatry at University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, says in an email. “Even this brief intervention resulted in improvements in at least one aspect of social behavior, namely imitation. This is encouraging because it suggests that relatively small changes due to early preschool programs could be of some benefit to young children with autism."

Early intervention can make a difference, says Fred R. Volkmar, MD, the Irving B. Harris Professor and director of the Child Study Center at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. “This is a nice success story that shows that with more research and better intervention, kids with autism are doing better and better,” he says.

Children with autism tend to live in their own world, he says. “We think that this social isolation leads to a lot of autism-related symptoms and behaviors,” he says.

Intervening early with an emphasis on social development may change how these children relate to others and learn, which could improve other aspects of autism or prevent them from developing in the first place, he tells WebMD.

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Geraldine Dawson, PhD, chief science officer, Autism Speaks, research professor, department of psychiatry, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Fred R. Volkmar, MD, Irving B. Harris Professor; director, Child Study Center Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

Landa, R. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 2010.

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