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Exciting Times in Early Diagnosis and Treatment

November 15, 2011 21 comments

Posted by Brooke Ingersoll, PhD, clinical psychologist, Michigan State University, East Lansing, and the recipient of an Autism Speaks 2011 Treatment Research Grant

We now diagnose autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) between the ages of 2 and 3 years, when symptoms become obvious. But over the last five years, we’ve been actively studying how to identify ASD symptoms in younger children, with the hope that earlier intervention can produce greater improvements in outcomes.

I was recently invited to write a review of these research efforts for the scientific journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. I’m excited to relate these findings to our families and friends as well:

In essence, the evidence is strong that many children who go on to a clear diagnosis of autism are already showing fewer early social and nonverbal communication skills at 12 months than do typically developing babies. These “missing” behaviors including imitating, showing objects to others and pointing to objects or events in the room.

My review of the research also showed clear evidence that targeted therapies can improve these early skills in young children with ASD —and might also produce improvements in other, later-emerging skills such as language and more mature social interactions. Despite these advances, much remains unknown about the early presentation of ASDs and the best way to intervene to improve these children’s outcomes.

While it is wonderful to see that we can identify and help very young children, I feel strongly that we must also increase research and improve therapies for older children with ASD. My current work, recently funded by an Autism Speaks treatment research grant, is evaluating the benefits of an intervention called reciprocal imitation training, designed to increase social engagement in adolescents with ASD and limited language.

With this intervention, we encourage non-verbal social behaviors such as imitation, gestures and eye contact. The intervention is adapted from social communication therapies that have shown success with young children with ASD who have not yet learned language. The early results have been encouraging, and we are very excited to continue this work in an effort to identify appropriate social interventions for older, nonverbal individuals with ASD.

Read more news and perspective on the Autism Speaks Science page.

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