Autism intervention "normalizes" kids' brain function in study

Autistic people whose condition prevents them from speaking are making breakthroughs with the help of tablet computers and special applications that allow them to communicate. Lesley Stahl reports.

An early intervention therapy for children with autism has been shown in a study to show unprecedented benefits in the brains of young children who have an autism spectrum disorder.

The study found the therapy, called the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), not only boosted the cognition, language and social skills among very young children with autism but the researchers say it's the first study to show the intervention also "normalized" their brain activity.

"This may be the first demonstration that a behavioral intervention for autism is associated with changes in brain function as well as positive changes in behavior," Dr. Tom Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said in a press release.

About one in 88 children have an autism spectrum disorder, according to federal estimates. The disorders begin before age 3 and are characterized by persistent deficits in everyday social, communication and behavioral functioning.

Some children may show hints of future problems within the first few months of life, while others may seem to develop normally until around 18 to 24 months of age and then stop gaining new skills or lose the skills they once had. Others may not show symptoms at all until 24 months of age.

The study was led by Dr. Geraldine Dawson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Chief Science Officer of the advocacy organization, Autism Speaks. Researchers recruited a 48-participant study pool with children diagnosed with autism and typically-developing children who were between 18 and 30-months of age. There were three times more boys in the study; autism is almost five times more common among boys than girls.

About half the kids were assigned to receive ESDM for a two-year period while the other half were assigned to various community-based interventions in addition to other referrals, evaluations and reading materials. ESDM applies techniques of Applied Behavioral Analysis and other play-based, relationship-based teaching methods in 20 hours of weekly sessions.

After two years of interventions, the researchers measured the children's brain activity with EEG scans while they viewed pictures of faces -- to represent social cues -- and toys, to represent non-social cues. Earlier research shows children with autism have more brain activity viewing non-social cues, than faces -- the opposite effect of typically-developing children.

The researchers found that 11 of 15 children with autism who received ESDM -- 73 percent of the group --showed more brain activation when viewing faces than toys, similar rates to typically-developing children. They also found 64 percent of kids with autism receiving community interventions showed the opposite, "autistic" pattern in brain activity.

"So much of a toddler's learning involves social interaction," Dawson explained in an Autism Speaks press release. "As a result, an early intervention program that promotes attention to people and social cues may pay dividends in promoting the normal development of brain and behavior."

Dawson however said to WebMD that her approach is one of several intervention methods, and timing is what's key.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children between 18 to 24-months be screened for autism

"The important point is early diagnosis," she said. "By starting early, we have the best chance of providing these kids with the best possible outcomes."

The study was published in the Oct. 26 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

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