The long-term success of an early autism treatment co-developed by a University of California-Davis researcher was validated recently by a national study soon to be published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.
The Early Start Denver Model is a nonmedical treatment for children age 12-48 months who show symptoms of autism, a developmental disorder that can affect social skills, movement, attention span and intellectual ability. While autism is usually diagnosed in children between the ages of 2 and 3, a growing body of research suggests that diagnosing it early and intervening with one-on-one, parent-led treatment can reduce symptoms in the long run.
In the most recent study, funded by Autism Speaks and the Autism Center for Excellence, a group of researchers including Sally Rogers of UC Davis followed up on a group of 39 children two years after a prior study they conducted when the children were about 2 to about 4. At that time, the 39 Seattle-area participants were split into two groups, one to receive the Early Start Denver Model and one to receive whatever autism intervention treatment was available in their community, over a two-year period.
Researchers studied the children again at age 6, a full two years after the completion of the two-year-long intervention. The results of the most recent study, published online recently, scheduled to print in July, found that children who received the Early Start Denver Model showed reduced core autism symptoms and more adaptive behavior than the control group.
"It continues to improve, even after the treatment ends, and that really stands out," Rogers said. "No one's ever demonstrated that before, ever."
The model, created by Rogers in 2009, is available to the public in more than a dozen languages and is intended for young children showing early signs of autism, such as trouble speaking, repetitive behavior or failure to reciprocate facial expressions. The study is the first to show the long-lasting effects of the treatment years after its administration.
Put simply, the treatment helps parents of children exhibiting signs of autism learn how to talk to and play with their kids. Each parent receives a manual on what language and gestures to use in response to certain symptoms. Distractedness, for example, can often be remedied by encouraging increased eye contact. A lack of speech can sometimes be approached with sound effects or songs.
"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."
Kara Reagon, associate director of dissemination science with national nonprofit Autism Speaks, said many parents are drawn to the Early Start Denver Model because it is a naturalistic approach that does not significantly interrupt their day-to-day lives.
Though additional, larger studies will be needed to confirm that the treatment is truly effective over time, the results are promising, she said.
"What this article does nicely is it tells us that early intervention is important, but the intensity of that intervention may be lessened over time based on individual needs and outcomes, and that might be more economical in the long run," she said.