A therapy in which adults actively hold the attention of preschool children with autism by pointing to toys and using other attention-grabbing exercises results in a long term boost to language skills, according to researchers supported by the National Institutes of Health.
At age 8, children with autism who were given this therapy when they were 3 or 4 years old had better vocabularies and stronger language skills than children who received standard therapy. All of the children in the study attended preschool 30 hours a week.
“Some studies have indicated that such pre-verbal interactions provide the foundation for building later language skills,” said Alice Kau, Ph.D., of the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Branch of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the NIH institute that supported the study.
“This study confirms that intensive therapy to engage the attention of young children with autism helps them acquire language faster and build lasting language skills.”
The 40 children who participated in the study (ages 8 and 9) had been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder five years earlier and had received the intensive therapy program or standard intervention, as part of a separate study.
The researchers evaluated the children’s vocabulary, language, and other cognitive skills and compared these results to those taken when the children were 3 and 4 years old. The earlier and later evaluations also measured the child’s ability to initiate interactions with adults, the variety of the child’s play, and the quality of interactions with a parent.
Children who began the attention-focusing therapy earlier had more advanced language skills at age 8. Those who learned to point or direct an adult’s attention to an object of interest at age 3 and 4 also exhibited stronger language skills at age 8. And those who demonstrated greater flexibility in playing with objects at age 3 or 4 had better memory and other cognitive skills at age 8.
“Our findings show that therapy focused on such basic skills as pointing, sharing, and engaging in play can have considerable long-term effects as children with autism spectrum disorders grow and learn to express themselves with words,” said first author Connie Kasari, Ph.D., of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
The study findings appear in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Source: National Institutes of Health