Autism early intervention: what to make of new studies


The recent talk of early intervention in children showing signs of potential Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has parents wondering if they, too, should be concerned.

One such study reported in USA Today indicated the potential to prevent a diagnosis of ASD if babies begin therapy before they can toddle. In the study, seven babies between six and nine months old were targeted due to “early signs of autism,” including inability to make eye contact, lack of babbling and fixations.

However, the study also points out none of these children had a diagnosis of ASD, as it cannot reliably be made until about age three. Results of the study indicated that when reassessed after reaching their third birthday, five of the children did not meet criteria for ASD.

This study, as well as other media reports suggesting that children can overcome autism, have caused many parents of infants and toddlers to wonder if their children might be showing early signs of autism. They may also question whether their children might benefit from some kind of therapy to prevent or reverse a future ASD diagnosis.

It is important to consider what typical infant development looks like. Many “early signs of ASD” are completely normal and expected in babies. Infants are expected to inspect their hands and fingers closely, which might be considered a potential sign of ASD in an older child. Babies with frequent ear infections or even persistent fluid in the ear (which may not require treatment) may show a delay in babbling.

Early warning signs of ASD do not necessarily mean a child will later be diagnosed with ASD. In making a diagnosis, the pattern of development in the child is examined, with reports and observations taken from multiple settings. Many things, such as intellectual and language disabilities, must also be ruled out.

Nevertheless, when an infant or young child is demonstrating atypical development or exhibiting behaviors out of the ordinary, therapy is an option. Many different options exist, depending on the nature of the concern.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is often the first-choice therapy for children with ASD. It strives to teach children “how to learn,” so they may benefit more fully from other therapies and make social gains in their environments.

Speech therapy can be beneficial for children whose primary problem is a lack of language development. A speech therapist will determine if there is a structural or anatomical problem preventing the production of speech sounds, and set goals for building the child’s communication skills, whether by voice or other means of communication.

Occupational therapy is ideal for children whose primary concerns are sensory related. A child who has behavioral regulation difficulties or who is hyper- or hypo-active may benefit from a sensory diet prescribed by an occupational therapist to help the child achieve optimal sensory processing and integration. These therapies often require a prescription, but not necessarily a diagnosis of autism in order to establish therapy.

The most important thing to remember in establishing early intervention therapies in young children is the ultimate goal in the therapies. That is, to help the child reach their maximum potential. The expectation should not be that therapy is able to “cure” or “prevent” autism or any other neurodevelopmental disorder. There is no definitive cause of ASD, though many theories exist, and most experts agree that there is no known cure for ASD, even with the promising results of recent studies.

Sally Rogers, co-author of the study featured in USA Today, for example, said her work “doesn’t prove that these children recovered from autism.”

Rogers, a professor and developmental psychologist at UC Davis, said that’s because they were too young to be diagnosed with the condition. But “it’s a promise of a potential treatment for young children who have these symptoms,” she told USA Today.

What we do know is the prevalence rate of autism is rising dramatically, and children benefit the most from early and intense intervention. While therapy will likely not cure a disorder like ASD, it may help to boost the child’s developmental trajectory. That can make symptoms appear less pervasive and problematic on diagnostic evaluations and on rating scales.

If you believe your child’s development is not progressing as it should, the first step would be to have an open and honest discussion with your child’s doctor. Knowing early intervention is the key, screenings and speech or occupational therapy evaluations to determine the need for therapy services are an excellent way to assess the concerns and develop a plan for intervention, if necessary.

Crystal Beadle, Ph.D. is a neuropsychologist on the staff of Our Children’s House at Baylor-Frisco. 

Additional Resources:

Autism Speaks

Families for Effective Autism Treatment North Texas

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Autism early intervention: what to make of new studies