Tags: In This Issue, Parenting, Special Needs
Got Autism? Get Intervention Early
Can children with autism lose their diagnosis? It's an alluring question, especially for parents of young children newly diagnosed with the disorder. According to some experts, it may be possible.
"Children who receive early intensive behavioral intervention stand a better chance of making significant progress and possibly catching up with their typically developing peers, if they make excellent progress in therapy," said Genae Hall, Ph.D., Research Director at Behavior Analysis Center for Autism.
Dr. Hall says that while research shows behavioral intervention to be effective for people of all ages, a comprehensive, intensive applied behavior analysis program may be optimally effective when a child is between two to five years old.
Dr. Hall points to a 2005 study that describes how permanent changes in brain functioning may occur due to changes in neurotransmission efficiency and formation of new synapses. The study states that behavioral intervention must be specific, intensive and conducted mostly in one-on-one sessions with a therapist.
She adds that different children learn at different rates and it is not currently possible to predict who will make the most progress in therapy or potentially even lose their diagnosis.
Does this mean children can be cured of autism?
Noha Minshawi, Ph.D., Clinical Director of the Riley Hospital for Children Christian Sarkine Autism Treatment Center at Indiana University Health, says that the best research data available shows high quality early intervention to be in a child's best interest, but there is no cure for the disorder.
"I don't think we yet know enough about how early interventions affect the brain. We do see changes in behavior and acquisitions of new skills... At this point we consider autism spectrum disorder to be a lifelong diagnosis. That does not mean children do not improve or improve vastly in many situations," Dr. Minshawi said.
If there is no cure, then why is early intervention so important?
The earlier a family helps a child with autism address social deficits and build communication and language skills the better quality of life the child will likely have.
Tim Courtney, Research and Training Director for Little Star Center, explains that when a child doesn't develop necessary life skills then he or she will rely on other strategies to communicate his needs.
Consider a child with little language. In lieu of typical communication, he may develop behavior strategies that work for him. He may be able to say things that only his parents understand or he may pace or stomp when he wants something specific. These habits are not ideal for the child or family and require therapeutic interventions that first teach him not to communicate that way and then teach better, more universal ways to communicate. It takes a great deal of work for the child to unlearn a habit and start over.
On the flip side, when therapy begins early in life, a young child may not have fallen so far behind typically developing same-age peers in academic, social and verbal skills that he or she cannot catch up.
"If the child receives intensive behavioral intervention before entering kindergarten, there is a chance that he or she will catch up to these peers and maintain comparable progress. Whether or not this best outcome scenario occurs for a particular child, he or she has the best chance to make significant progress when therapy is started as early as possible," said Dr. Hall.
As autism awareness increases and children receive diagnoses at younger ages, getting therapeutic help early should be the priority of parents'. Help can come via centers, schools, in-home programs or even parent training programs. Treatment, says Dr. Minshawi, is not one size fits all, but getting good behavior intervention with a well-trained practitioner is crucial.