A new study suggests children showing early signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder could be treated at home by parents, if symptoms are diagnosed quickly enough.

Researchers in California looked at a small group of seven children between the ages of six and 15 months who showed early signs of ASD and developmental delays. After undergoing behavioural treatment based on the “Early Start Denver Model,” a majority of the children caught up to their peers in learning and language skills, researchers found.

"For the children who are achieving typical developmental rates, we are essentially curing their developmental delays," Sally J. Rogers, the lead author of the study, said in a press release.

The goal of the treatment was to address six early symptoms of the disorder:

  • Visual fixations on objects
  • Abnormal repetitive behaviors
  • Lack of intentional communicative acts
  • lack of coordination of gaze, affect, and voice in reciprocal, turn-taking interactions
  • Lack of age-appropriate phonemic development
  • Decreasing gaze, social interest and engagement

Once these symptoms were identified, parents were trained to reinforce positive social and communicative behaviors in specific ways. To treat visual fixation on an object, for example, parents were taught to shift the child’s attention from the object to the parent.

“Follow infant interest to an object and develop a turn-taking social game,” reads the procedure parents were suggested to follow.

Rogers, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UC Davis, said the children showed improvements as early as age two.

"Most children with ASD are barely even getting diagnosed by then," she said.

The results are exciting for parents in particular, because the treatment doesn’t involve expensive therapy. Parents require just 12 one-hour training sessions to learn the techniques used to treat symptoms.

“In our study parents, were the agents of change,” Laurie Vismara, another researcher in the study, told CTV News. “They learned the intervention techniques. They made it work within their family lifestyle.”

The techniques require autism symptoms to be diagnosed at a very early age, which right now is uncommon today. But Rogers is hopeful this work can give parents more control over their children’s development.

"My goal is for children and adults with autism to be able to participate in everyday life and in all aspects of the community in which they want to participate,” said Rogers. “To have satisfying work, education that fits their needs, a circle of people they love, and to be generally happy with their lives."

And though results are promising, researchers say the limited scope of the study means more investigation into early treatment is necessary.

“Because this was not a randomized study, no conclusions about the efficacy of the experimental intervention can be drawn,” reads the paper. “However, given the need for treatment approaches for this age group… the data from the study indicate that a controlled trial is a feasible and an important next step.”For more information about the program, contact:

  • Centre for Training and Research in Early Autism Treatment (TREAT)
  • Pam Gallego, Program Clinical Coordinator
  • 5734 Yonge Street, Suite 500
  • Toronto, Ontario M2M 4E7
  • 416-730-1758
  • pgallego@treatcentre.ca

With files from CTV's Medical Specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip