Is early intervention for ASD actually prevention?
By: Alycia Halladay, Ph.D., Director of Research, Environmental Health Sciences
As the average age at which early signs and symptoms of autism and diagnosis moves becomes younger and younger, methods for intervening at autism at the earliest possible ages are becoming more widely used. At this year’s IMFAR meeting, several clinicians and researchers addressed differences in design, methods, and identified challenges and potential solutions for delivering intervention from individuals with ASD as young at 10 months of age. Since this is when very early symptoms of ASD can be detected, but not yet diagnosed, many are considering this as a method of prevention rather than intervention. A feasible and cost-efficient way to provide interventions to infants and toddlers is to engage parents and train them to use behavioral techniques to improve development. What works for adolescents and adults does not apply to infants and toddlers. Instead of spending time working on specific tasks and skillsets, clinicians work with parents and provide ongoing support to engage children in social, communication and motor skills during playtime activities. But does this prevent ASD?
The simple answer is that it is very complicated. As reported in an earlier report, one size does not fit all. There may be a number of variables that affect outcome. In addition, last year, a report out of the UK last year reported that parent-mediated interventions did not result in a change in diagnostic status in young children. This same group showed new data at IMFAR this year showing that the intervention was effective in some ways – infants showed increased attention and gestures as well as improved shared interest. These early improvements are thought to lead to a higher level of functioning later on.
Children with ASD suffer from impoverished social interaction, and parents can be instrumental in providing stimuli to their children to change behavior. Most interventions now focus on encouraging parents to actively engage the child using evidence based strategies, in natural environments. Other types of interventions that were used included promoting behaviors and responsiveness in the context of everyday routines.
Given that published research don’t actually prevent ASD, but improve long-term outcomes, is the goal of early interventions to reduce the incidence of ASD? Alice Carter, member of the Autism Speaks Toddler Treatment Network noted that earlier screening and delivery of parent interventions which improve joint attention, and coordinated attention between parent and child – may prevent symptoms down the road, but may not always lead to a change in diagnosis. She stated “working with parents can make a huge difference in many children’s lives.”
Improved outcome measures which are more sensitive to improvements over time on a number of domains need to be developed to better describe these differences. In addition, working with a young child at home is difficult in any situation, and especially for families affected by ASD. Therefore, methods and techniques to maximize the amount of time parents deliver effective interventions are considered a priority. Autism Speaks is proud to sponsor this network in thinking about these important issues.