Can Parents Help Babies Outgrow Autism

Can Parents Help Babies «Outgrow» Autism?

Summary: A small pilot study suggests that parent-led intervention starting as early as 9 months could help babies at risk for developing autism change their developmental course. The results reinforce the importance of recognizing the signs of the disorder — and having children recieve treatment — as early as possible.

By Marygrace Taylor | Posted: September 9, 2014

From 2008 to 2013, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnoses grew by a whopping 80 percent. The jump suggests an increase in awareness of ASD symptoms by both parents and doctors — which is a good thing, since it means more children are receiving treatment sooner. But while most children with ASD don’t start getting treatment until age 2 or 3, a small new pilot study suggests parent-led interventions that start as early as 9 months could have a significant impact on kids’ development.

The research, published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. followed a group of seven babies aged 9 to 15 months who were considered to be at risk for developing ASD. Though the babies were too young to be formally diagnosed with the disorder, all showed behavioral signs that were indicative of future autism development, including:

  • Unusual visual fixations, like staring at a ceiling fan for long periods of time
  • Unusual, repetitive patterns of object exploration, like spending long periods of time spinning, tapping, or opening and closing things
  • Lack of communicative tasks or gestures, like raising hands to be picked up by 9 months or pointing by 12 months
  • Lack of sound or consonant production
  • Lack of coordinated eye contact, smiling or reciprocal interaction during play with a parent
  • Decreased eye contact or decreased interest in social interaction

At the start of the study, parents received 12 hour-long coaching sessions to learn how to read the subtle cues that indicated their babies felt interested and engaged during everyday activities like playtime, feeding, bath time or diaper changes. By learning how to recognize those cues, moms and dads could use simple, therapist-taught techniques to help their babies engage more and support their social development.

What kind of techniques? Parents of very quiet babies, for instance, might encourage vocal development by imitating any sound that their baby did make. For babies who don’t give much eye contact, parents might make their faces easier to find by ensuring that babies were well positioned and free of distractions. «We wanted to develop an approach that parents could easily learn and incorporate in their daily lives,» study co-author Sally J. Rogers, Ph.D.. University of California-Davis Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, told reporters during a press call.

Rogers and her team followed the babies until age 36 months, the time at which ASD is most often diagnosed. Along the way, the researchers compared the babies’ developmental progress to a group of four other babies who had exhibited similar symptoms at the study’s outset, but whose parents had chosen not to participate in the treatment. The findings were encouraging: By age 3, six of the seven babies in the treatment group showed normal patterns of both verbal and nonverbal development, while the untreated group continued to show developmental delays. And while just two of the seven treatment babies were diagnosed with ASD (one diagnosis was mild to moderate), three of the four untreated babies were diagnosed.

The study, though small in size, offers clues to several big questions within the autism puzzle. First, that behavioral intervention aimed at infants who appear to be at high risk for developing the disorder could alter the course of their development. «The earlier the intervention, the better for taking advantage of brain plasticity and to avoid secondary learning delays resulting from autistic tendencies,» says Lisa Shulman, M.D.. Director of Infant and Toddler Services, Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. For example, babies with ASD may overfocus on unusual things in their environment, causing them to miss out on the things that typical babies learn from their surroundings and compounding their delays over time.

What’s more, parents can play an essential role in carrying out those behavioral interventions. «Social learning and nurturing of social interest needs to occur throughout the day, not in the course of a few hours a week,» Shulman says. «Every diaper change, meal, play opportunity, trip to the park and nighttime routine offers an opportunity to encourage responsive parenting and reinforce [baby’s] social interest.» Equally important? That moms and dads feel capable of carrying out the behavior techniques. The majority of parents of the babies in the treatment group mastered the techniques within 7 hours of coaching and found it satisfying to perform them on their babies.

Of course, much more research is needed before experts can determine whether this kind of intervention could work on a larger scale. Still, it reinforces the importance of recognizing potential warning signs of ASD as early as possible to ensure early intervention.

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