Emerging research suggests early treatment for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) can significantly improve behavior, stimulate communication and enhance brain function.
Yale School of Medicine researchers have published their study findings in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
Researchers Fred Volkmar, M.D., Kevin A. Pelphrey, Ph.D., and colleagues say the study findings suggest that brain systems supporting social perception can be improved when an early intervention behavioral program is administered.
In the study, investigators used a technique called pivotal response treatment. This treatment includes parent training, and employs play in its methods.
ASDs are complex neurobiological disorders that inhibit a person’s ability to communicate and develop social relationships, and are often accompanied by behavioral challenges.
Until recently, the diagnosis of autism diagnosis typically was not confirmed until a child was about three to five years-old. As a result, treatment programs were developed for this older age group.
Today, Volkmar and his team are diagnosing children as young as age one. The combination of an early diagnosis and then application of the pivotal response treatment intervention has been revealing.
Pivotal response treatment, developed at the University of California-Santa Barbara, combines developmental aspects of learning and development, and is easy to implement in children younger than age two.
Functional magnetic brain imaging was used in the current study to measure changes in brain activity after two five-year-olds with ASD received pivotal response treatment.
Study co-author Pamela Ventola, Ph.D., used pivotal response treatment to identify distinct behavioral goals for each child in the study, and then reinforced these targeted skills with treatment involving motivational play activities.
The team found that children who received this treatment showed improvements in behavior, and being able to talk to other people. In addition, the MRI and electroencephalogram revealed increased brain activity in the regions supporting social perception.
Although the findings are preliminary (from two children), the researchers are currently conducting a full-scale study of 60 children.
Pelphrey said that while both children in the current study received the same type of treatment for ASD, the results were not homogenous because ASD is a multi-faceted disorder that has a unique effect on each child. Some children with ASD function on a higher level than others, for example.
“ASD is a heterogeneous disorder, and research aimed at understanding treatment must address this heterogeneity,” said Pelphrey. “Both the children in our current study made progress, but their degree of progress and level of skills at the end of treatment were distinct.”
Volkmar sees these results as a first step in a novel approach to treatment planning. “Autism research has come a long way,” he said.
“These findings are exciting because they show that early intervention works in autism.”
Source: Yale University