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Brain Findings Suggest Improvement for Young Children With Autism

Earlier diagnosis and treatment could make a big difference in the cognitive and communication abilities of children with autism spectrum disorders, according to an autism study by the Yale University Child Study Center published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

As part of the center's ongoing study of young children with the disorders, lead researcher Fred R. Volkmar and colleagues conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging on two autistic 5-year-olds who had been given "pivotal response treatment," which uses students' interest in different types of play to encourage greater social communication and behavior, language development, and willingness to ask questions. The therapy, originally called "natural language teaching," also includes training to help parents better support their students.

Researchers found that not only did the therapy improve behavior and language skills for the two children, but it led to greater activity in the areas of their brains associated with social perception and motivation.

This is a pinprick of a study in the midst of larger ongoing research, and it remains to be seen whether a larger study of 60 students will replicate the findings on the effectiveness of pivotal response. In the meantime, this also highlights the critical importance of early identification and intervention for students with disorders on the autism spectrum. Increasing evidence suggests children with autistic spectrum disorders begin to show differences in communication, shared attention, and other developmental issues in infancy. Yet parents report there is often a lag of months or years between when their children's behavior first seemed troubling and when they were actually diagnosed with autism—and many are not diagnosed until starting school.

While many autistic children are identified just before starting school, the two children in the study were identified right around age 2, giving interventions much more time to boost their social skills before children must start formal schooling.

Volkmar said in a statement on the study that he sees the results as a first step in finding new ways to plan treatments for students. "Autism research has come a long way," he said. "These findings are exciting because they show that early intervention works in autism."

For more on current autism intervention research, check out my colleague Nirvi Shah's blog.

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