This month, two new important research findings were published from scientists that study the very earliest signs and symptoms of autism. First, Dr. Suzanne Macari at Yale showed that a type of temperament in toddlers was associated with autism at about 3 years of age. This may be used in the future to develop specialized interventions very very early on. Meanwhile, Dr. Jessica Brian’s group in Canada used the very early signs of autism – social orienting – to develop a new intervention called the Social ABC’s which they piloted last year. Last week, a randomized clinical trial of this intervention showed improvements in social smiling, reactions to parents, and social orienting, suggesting it is a feasible and valid intervention option. There is now a list of these interventions that have been rigorously tested. This demonstrates that the early detection of features of autism, like temperament, can be turned into interventions to improve the outcome of toddlers with ASD.
As always, good news and bad news in autism this week. First the good news: an intervention given between 9-14 months of age in children with a high probability of having an autism diagnosis improved autism symptoms at 3 years of age. Now the bad: mothers who experience severe childhood abuse are more likely to have a child with an autism diagnosis. Why? A new study explains it might have a lot to do with autism traits in the parents. We would love to hear your thoughts on the results, please provide them in the comment section.
The brain is developing even after birth. So interventions that are given very early have the best chance of remolding and rewiring a brain with autism to prevent autism related disabilities. This week, a group from the University of London, Duke University and University of Washington measured brain activity during tasks that required social attention following 2 months of very very very early intervention. They found that the way the brain responded to social stimuli was more like those without an autism diagnosis. This study shows a biological marker of brain function is altered after behavioral interventions that are intended to do just that – change the way the brain functions.
How long do you have to study an intervention to see if it works? Many scientists agree that it isn’t just about what happens in the short run, but if those interventions can be sustained for long periods of time. In the case of very early interventions, it is now clear that treatment for about a year can change the trajectory of symptoms so those improvements are sustained, maintained or lead to even further improvements for 6 years after the initial intervention has stopped. This important finding was hidden by the BBC getting the headline wrong and hiding the true value of the research at the end of the story. This week’s podcast outlines the contribution of parent-implemented intervention and research studying autism even before symptoms emerge in improving trajectories rather than just immediate outcomes. Happy Halloween!
Cognitive ability, measured by intellectual quotient or IQ, has been thought to predict response to intervention, social abilities, adaptive behavior and long term outcome. Numerous studies have shown that it can influence what is labeled as a good outcome. However, two studies this week point out how those across the spectrum in cognitive ability still benefit from early intervention and make friends on the playground. In both studies, there were factors that were more important for outcome than IQ. So it may be an important factor in outcome, but not the only factor.
Over the holidays, new studies around early (before age 5 years) intervention were published that generated excitement in the autism community. First, a new parent-mediated intervention called the “Social ABC’s” showed promising results. Another intervention showed promise in south Asia, indicating that the success of parent-mediated interventions are not specific to North American countries. Finally, data shows that most children are not having to wait for an ASD diagnosis before they receive these early intervention services. They may not be perfect, but they are something, and this is progress.