Study: Early Autism Intervention Can Alter Brain Development, Improve Social Behavior

An intensive program was shown to cause lasting changes in the way young children with autism react to social cues. 

autism.jpegUniversity of Washington

PROBLEM: The Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), an intervention program developed at the University of Washington and UC Davis, was previously shown to have measurable effects on the IQ, communication skills, and social interactions of toddlers under the age of two with autism spectrum disorder. The findings highlighted the importance of identifying and working with young children, presumably while their brains are still malleable. 

Two years later, the model's developers revisited their subjects to determine whether their intervention had lastingly altered the children's brain functioning.

METHODOLOGY: Half of the original 48 participants had been receiving 20 hours per week of ESDM, implemented in home visits by a trained interventionist for the entire two years. Their parents were also taught how to use ESDM strategies, which emphasize social behavior and face recognition. 

As a control, the other half of the children were given routine community-based intervention. Now four to five years old, the children were hooked up to EEGs while being shown randomized images of toys (neutral objects)  and female faces (social stimuli), the latter of which children with autism typically have trouble identifying and responding to. Their brain activity during this exercise was compared to that a group of children without autism. 

RESULTS: All of the children were similarly able to process faces, which suggested to the authors that intervention in both forms was somewhat effective. 

But 74 percent of the children in the ESDM group demonstrated active attention to and active cognitive processing of the faces. Only 36 percent of the children who received community intervention had the same response, and in general, these children actually tended to respond more to the objects than to the social stimuli. 

The increased brain activity of the EDSM children was positively correlated with improved social behavior.

CONCLUSION: Intervention, when early, intensive, and focused on social engagement, can help to normalize the brain activity of children with autism and lead to improvements in social behavior.

IMPLICATIONS: This intervention in no way claims to cure autism -- the brain activity did not correlate with diagnostic scores, IQ, language, or adaptive behavior. But it might be a way of mitigating one of its secondary effects: the social disengagement that children with autism exhibit early in life can be self-perpetuating, keeping them from learning how to properly recognize and response to faces. Especially for those on the less extreme end of the spectrum, such as those with Asperger's Syndrome, effective social-based intervention can profoundly influence their ability to function in social environments.

The full study, "Early Behavioral Intervention Is Associated With Normalized Brain Activity in Young Children With Autism," is published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

Presented by

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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