Pilot Study Treats Infants for Autism

A preliminary trial finds that teaching parents certain therapeutic interactions for babies showing early signs of autism may improve the infants’ future social development.

Sep 11, 2014
Jef Akst

FLICKR, JIM MAKOSBy training parents how to interact during play, bathing, and diaper-changing, seven infants between 7 months and 15 months who showed signs of autism were doing noticeably better than controls by three years of age, according to a study published this week (September 12) in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

The researchers first identified symptomatic babies, who “did not use their bodies, faces, or voices to send and receive messages from their caregivers on what they liked or didn’t like, or wanted more or less of,” coauthor Sally Rogers of the University of California, Davis told NewScientist. They then trained parents to implement a behavioral treatment strategy commonly used to reduce symptoms in older children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Early on, the researchers saw signs of accelerated development, and by age three, all subjects fell within the normal range, Rogers said. Infants who showed signs of ASD but whose parents elected not to participate in the study, on the other hand, experienced a worsening of their symptoms.

Typical ASD therapies do not start before age two, but Rogers said she suspects that treating infants may be more successful thanks to greater brain plasticity early in life. A larger trial is now needed to replicate the results, she added.

In addition to showing promise for early intervention, the new work is “a significant study because it demonstrates the ability both to detect symptomatic infants and provide a meaningful intervention prior to 12 months of age,” Lonnie Zwaigenbaum, director of autism research at the University of Alberta in Canada, told NewScientist.