A six-month, group-based early intervention program with a special emphasis on social development can improve some of the core symptoms of autism spectrum disorder in children as young as 2, according to a study in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
“This and other autism studies suggest that the ‘wait and see’ method, which is often recommended to concerned parents, could lead to missed opportunities for early intervention,” Rebecca Landa, PhD, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders and the REACH research program at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, says in a news release. “By acting early, we are providing toddlers tools and skills to increase social opportunities throughout their lifetime and positioning them to have the best possible outcomes.”
Background: Social and communication impairments are core deficits and prognostic indicators of autism. We evaluated the impact of supplementing a comprehensive intervention with a curriculum targeting socially synchronous behavior on social outcomes of toddlers with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
Methods: Fifty toddlers with ASD, ages 21 to 33 months, were randomized to one of two six-month interventions: Interpersonal Synchrony or Non-Interpersonal Synchrony. The interventions provided identical intensity (10 hours per week in classroom), student-to-teacher ratio, schedule, home-based parent training (1.5 hours per month), parent education (38 hours), and instructional strategies, except the Interpersonal Synchrony condition provided a supplementary curriculum targeting socially engaged imitation, joint attention, and affect sharing; measures of these were primary outcomes. Assessments were conducted pre-intervention, immediately post-intervention, and, to assess maintenance, at six-month follow-up. Random effects models were used to examine differences between groups over time. Secondary analyses examined gains in expressive language and nonverbal cognition, and time effects during the intervention and follow-up periods.
Results: A significant treatment effect was found for socially engaged imitation (p = .02), with more than doubling (17% to 42%) of imitated acts paired with eye contact in the Interpersonal Synchrony group after the intervention. This skill was generalized to unfamiliar contexts and maintained through follow-up. Similar gains were observed for initiation of joint attention and shared positive affect, but between-group differences did not reach statistical significance. A significant time effect was found for all outcomes (p < .001); greatest change occurred during the intervention period, particularly in the Interpersonal Synchrony group.
Conclusions: This is the first ASD randomized trial involving toddlers to identify an active ingredient for enhancing socially engaged imitation. Adding social engagement targets to intervention improves short-term outcome at no additional cost to the intervention. The social, language, and cognitive gains in our participants provide evidence for plasticity of these developmental systems in toddlers with ASD. http://www.clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT00106210?term = landa&rank = 3.