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‘Breakthrough’ Study: Early infant therapy could drastically help reduce autism diagnosis

Ground-breaking new research has found that early intervention reduces autism-related behaviours in children.

Autism therapy aimed at babies may reduce the likelihood of a later diagnosis of autism, according to world-first research by the Telethon Kids Institute (TKI). In the study, doctors were able to show for the first time that the new therapy aimed at infants can reduce autistic behaviour as well as the likelihood that children will be diagnosed with autism before they reach school age.

On their website, the TKI states that, “Our team is seeking to identify the genetic and neurobiological pathways that may lead to autism. We are collecting data and samples for our large-scale studies, which include a pregnancy study of autism, looking at facial features of children with autism and the Australian Autism Biobank”.

According to the research lead, Professor Andrew Whitehouse, the findings are a “true breakthrough moment”.

Young infants who received the therapy after showing signs of potential autism spectrum disorder (ASD), such as failing to respond to their name and avoiding eye-contact, were one-third as likely to have a diagnosis of autism at the age of three, compared with children who had standard care, the researchers found.

The randomized clinical trial of 104 infants aged nine months to 14 months showing early behavioural signs of autism showed that pre-emptive intervention led to “a statistically significant reduction in the severity of ASD behaviours across early childhood”.

While one half of infants were randomly assigned to have routine care, the others received 10 sessions of therapy over the space of five months. All were then reassessed for autism behaviours at 18, 24 and 36 months.

Infants who received pre-emptive intervention had lower odds of meeting diagnostic criteria for autism (7%) than those who received usual care (21%) at age 3 years.

The study concluded that it “found that a pre-emptive intervention reduced ASD diagnostic behaviours when used at the time atypical development first emerges during infancy”.

The breakthrough study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, is the first time pre-emptive intervention with children as young as one or two has been shown to so significantly reduce autism-related behaviours.

In what is perceived by many as a hugely positive development, the study proves that providing support very early in life can alter developmental trajectories for children.

In response, advocacy group Autism Awareness said the research signalled the need for a total re-evaluation of early childhood approaches to the neuro developmental disorder “to give our children a chance to have their best outcome in life”.

The findings suggest that intervention in the first year of life specifically – when autism may be suspected but is not certain – can improve social development in autistic children, which can have long-term positive knock-on effects for their broader lives.

“This is the first worldwide evidence that a pre-emptive intervention can reduce autism behaviours and the likelihood of a later diagnosis,” said Professor Jonathan Green at the University of Manchester.

“We think this is a landmark finding because it suggests intervention at this early time can have this substantial effect. It may well change the way services provide support to a large number of children worldwide.”

The international research team who carried out the pioneering research included Western Australia’s Child and Adolescent Health Service, La Trobe University, University, the University of Western Australia and the University of Manchester, and was led by Telethon Kids Institute Professor Andrew Whitehouse.

According to the study, the children scored better on social interactions but also on other symptoms, such as repetitive movements and unusual reactions to senses such as smell and taste. Despite the ‘breakthrough’ nature of the findings, further follow-up is required to see if the therapy simply delays diagnosis or prevents it completely in some children.

The researchers also emphasised that the therapy is not a cure for autism. Many of the children still had significant developmental problems when they turned three at the end of the study. However the findings do suggest that a tailored therapy can at least help some infants to gain social skills before reaching school age.

“The clinical impact that could be immediate is really gobsmacking,” said Professor Andrew Whitehouse of the University of Western Australia in Perth, the study’s research lead.

“To date, no therapy has shown such positive effects on development that it has influenced a child’s diagnostic outcomes. For this reason, the therapy has the very real potential to change how we provide support to children developing differently. At its most basic, this is a change from ‘wait and see’ to ‘identify and act’ – a new clinical model that could transform support for families,” Whitehouse added.

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