UCSB Researchers Develop New Treatment For Infants With Autism
April 30, 2013

UCSB Researchers Develop New Treatment For Infants With Autism

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

For most babies, a game of peek-a-boo can be fun, entertaining and full of laughter. However, infants with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may find the game unpleasant and disturbing.

That type of social disconnect is a telltale sign of ASD, which often worsens as newborns develop into children and adults.

New research from the Koegel Autism Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara has found switching games that are disturbing to children with those the infant prefers can help lessen the infants' ASD symptoms, and potentially alleviate the condition altogether, according to a new report in the Journal of Positive Behavioral Interventions.

The center´s director, Lynn Koegel said the game regimen her team developed is modified Pivotal Response Treatment (PVT), which is based on principles of positive motivation.

In the study, the researchers coached parents to identify and focus on the most positive interactions they have with their child.

"We had them play with their infants for short periods, and then give them some kind of social reward," Koegel said. "Over time, we conditioned the infants to enjoy all the activities that were presented by pairing the less desired activities with the highly desired ones."

Koegel added a social reward is preferable to a physical or food reward because it continues the all-important personal interaction between parent and child.

"The idea is to get them more interested in people," she continued, "to focus on their socialization. If they're avoiding people and avoiding interacting, that creates a whole host of other issues. They don't form friendships, and then they don't get the social feedback that comes from interacting with friends."

According to the study, after a one- to three-month intervention period with parents and children, all of the kids in the study had normal reactions to social stimuli.

"Two of the three have no disabilities at all, and the third is very social," Koegel said. "The third does have a language delay, but that's more manageable than some of the other issues."

ASD has been typically diagnosed in children 18 months or older, with those affected receiving treatment at around 4 years.

"You can pretty reliably diagnose kids at 18 months, especially the more severe cases," Koegel said. "The mild cases might be a little harder, especially if the child has some verbal communication. There are a few measures —— like the ones we used in our study —— that can diagnose kids pre-language, even as young as six months.

“But ours was the first that worked with children under 12 months and found an effective intervention,” she said.

Koegel noted her team´s findings could have a greater impact if the trend of increasing ASD rates continues.

"When you consider that the recommended intervention for preschoolers with autism is 30 to 40 hours per week of one-on-one therapy, this is a fairly easy fix," she said. "We did a single one-hour session per week for four to 12 weeks until the symptoms improved, and some of these infants were only a few months old. We saw a lot of positive change."