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Getting a Head Start on Autism Treatment

It’s no secret that starting treatment early on in children with autism can give them a significant push in minimizing core autism symptoms and becoming more behaviorally adaptive. And with autism diagnoses happening earlier and more frequently, researchers are gaining crucial new data on just how effective early treatment can be.


One such treatment is the Early Start Denver Model designed for children between the ages of 12 and 48 months who display signs of autism, such as limited social skills and movement and decreased attention span and intellectual ability. Although autism is typically diagnosed between the ages of 2 and 3, a widening body of research is demonstrating that starting one-on-one, parent-based treatment as early as possible can result in huge advancements in a child’s development.


Soon to join this body of research is a new study about to be published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry that shows that starting treatment in children ages 12-48 months who show signs of autism can result in significant long-term achievements.


Funded by the Autism Center for Excellence and Autism Speaks, researchers recruited 39 Seattle-area subjects that were split into two separate groups, one that received the Early Start Denver Model and another that received whatever treatment was available to them within their community.


This group had previously been part of a study the researchers had held two years earlier when the children were between the ages of 2 and 4. The children were then studied again at the age of 6 where researchers found that the children who had received the Denver Model displayed significantly reduced symptoms and enhanced behavioral abilities than the other group.


One of the lead researchers, Sally Rogers of UC Davis who first pioneered the treatment said, “[The behavior] continues to improve, even after the treatment ends, and that really stands out. No one’s ever demonstrated that before, ever.”


First created in 2009, the treatment was designed for the parents of young children showing early signs of autism to take an active step towards curbing the development of autism through modifying how they play and talk with their kids. The parents in the study, as well as those who choose to apply the model in their homes, are given a manual that instructs them on the specific language and gestures they should use in response to certain behavior. As such, a parent can combat a lack of speech by using sound effects or singing a song while distractedness can be met by increased eye contact.


“You look at it, and it just looks like someone is playing with a baby that’s responding pretty nicely,” Rogers said. “What you don’t see is that without those techniques, people who are typically trying to interact with that child are not having success.” The Denver Model is attractive to many parents because it gives them tools that they can utilize as part of their day-to-day routine.


While this research is certainly promising, further research still needs to be done to help determine just how intensely and how long the Denver model should be applied and whether it can be weaned as a child grows older. But in the mean time, it certainly gives credence to those advocating for early intervention.