Infants who seemed headed for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) had milder symptoms as toddlers if their caregivers were subject to a social communication intervention when infants were just 1 year of age, a randomized clinical trial found.
Infants whose families participated in the intervention exhibited significantly milder ASD symptoms 12 months later compared to those in the control group. They also had lower odds of being diagnosed with ASD by an independent clinician at age 3 years (6.7% vs 20.5%, OR 0.18, 95% CI 0.00-0.68), according to the study group led by Andrew Whitehouse, PhD, of the University of Western Australia.
"To our knowledge, this randomized clinical trial is the first to demonstrate that a preemptive intervention for infants showing early signs of ASD led to a small but enduring reduction in ASD symptom severity and reduced odds of ASD diagnosis in early childhood," the researchers wrote in JAMA Pediatrics.
ASD can be detected at 18 months and reliably diagnosed at age 2, but is often not diagnosed until children are much older, according to the CDC.
What makes this complicated, however, is that social communication skills are one of the main things measured when someone is assessed for an autism diagnosis. The fact that this therapy boosted those skills meant that children scored lower on those parts of autism assessments, which in turn meant they didn’t meet the criteria for an autism diagnosis. In fact, the study shows that this therapy reduced autism diagnosis by two-thirds. It is worth noting that the numbers leading to this effect are quite small, but significant nonetheless.
That raises questions that should give us pause. The main concern for us in the UK is that support only follows diagnosis. Even if the therapy allows autistic people to have a better start in life, the system will need to change to ensure support is there if and when it is needed.
We’re working to fund research to create a system where support is based on needs and not on diagnosis, but we’re not there yet. This study itself shows that early, timely and sensitively designed support makes a difference, so what impact could the delay of support have in the long term?
We also have to ask what else a child may miss out on if they go on to be diagnosed with autism at a later date. For many autistic people, autism is part of their identity. As it stands under the current system, delaying a diagnosis could mean they miss out on a level of peer support and understanding that they could otherwise benefit from.