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A Toy Story: Toddler Treatment Network finds an effective treatment strategy for some young children with ASD

March 25, 2011 10 comments

It is now possible to screen for autism spectrum disorder in toddlers as young as 18 months of age and ways of screening even earlier are being tested.  When a parent learns that their young son or daughter is showing symptoms of autism,  it is important that they be offered intervention strategies that can help their toddler at risk for ASD have the most positive outcome.  To address this need, in the summer of 2006, Autism Speaks began an initiative to support research on early intervention targeting toddlers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) from 18-24 months of age.  There are many questions that need to be addressed:  Who should deliver the intervention?  How many hours are required? What strategies should be used?  Are these strategies effective?  Research funded by  Autism Speaks is addressing these questions.

At the time the initiative was started, many clinicians were already referring children to birth to three  services in their communities and developing their own programs using techniques that could improve communication, social behavior, and language in toddlers. However, very few randomized clinical trials – the gold standard for determining whether a treatment is really effective – had been performed in toddlers with ASD. Of the randomized clinical trials that did exist for this young age, the number of children participating was low, so it was not clear how well the results would generalize to other children.

To solve this problem, Autism Speaks  provided resources to clinicians and researchers who were working with children with ASD as young as 18 months of age to determine what types of interventions were effective, what made them beneficial, and how symptoms improved over time. As a result, 7 projects involving multiple sites around the US and Canada began in 2007 and the Toddler Treatment Network was born.

Each project is unique in the type and style of the intervention, but all the projects shared a common link: they all included parent training for delivery of interventions at home. This model is attractive because parents or other caregivers are able to deliver the intervention through the day in familiar settings. This model offered more time in intervention and wascost-effective.  Members of the Toddler Treatment Network came together to share ideas, best practices, and a plan to combine their data at the end of their studies.  As a result, over 250 toddlers have been recruited to participate in these studies, and a meta-analysis combining data from all studies will be completed in 2012.  Full descriptions of the projects can be found here:  http://www.autismspeaks.org/science/research/initiatives/toddler_treatment_network.php

Recently, one of these research groups published their first set of findings in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.  At study sites in Miami, Boston and Tennessee,  children with ASD were enrolled in the Hanen More than Words program, which is focused on developing language and communication skills in toddlers.  The comparison group of children with ASD were enrolled in local early intervention programs, support groups, and other behavioral interventions.  Children and parents were assessed at the beginning of the study, during the study, and 4 months after the intervention ended.

At the beginning of the study, a number of behaviors were examined, including the number of toys or objects a child played with. While the Hanen intervention was not effective for all children, it was particularly effective for children who did not play with many toys before the program started.

Why?  The researchers speculate that during the intervention the toddlers who were less object- focused may have been more easily engaged with their parents during the intervention and thus spent more time learning appropriate responses.  These results suggest that as toddler interventions are developed it will be important to understand which kids are most likely to benefit from each type of intervention.

This study adds to the body of evidence showing that early intervention in autism can lead to meaningful improvements in social, behavioral, and communication outcomes.  However, one type of intervention strategy is not going to work for all children affected with ASD.

With this in mind, studies that are part of the Toddler Treatment Network focus on different programs and different methods for promoting development.  A higher-intensity program may be needed in some children.   For other children, however, the Hanen style of intervention strategy, which allowed parents to deliver the intervention in different settings, resulted in significant improvement in outcome compared to traditional methods.

Wendy Stone, Ph.D., study co-author and director of the University of Washington Autism Center described what she saw as a successful result of early intervention for autism:  “Our ultimate goal is to catch the symptoms early and find effective preventive interventions so that these children can attain their full potential.”  Autism Speaks is looking forward to the findings from all these studies, and will keep you updated when they are published.

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