A new therapeutical treatment for autism that can be used to treat children as young as 18 months improves their IQ, language ability and social interaction, according to a study published Monday.
"This is the first controlled study of an intensive early intervention that is appropriate for children with autism who are less than two-and-a-half years of age," said Geraldine Dawson, lead author of the study.
"It is crucial that we can offer parents effective therapies for children in this age range," added Dawson, currently chief science officer of Autism Speaks.
"By starting as soon as the toddler is diagnosed, we hope to maximize the positive impact of the intervention."
The research used an approach known as the "Early Start Denver Model," (ESDM) which combines use of applied behavioral analysis and development "relationship-based" techniques, according to the study published in the journal Pediatrics.
The approach is the first to be used on children younger than pre-school age and yielded impressive results in treating autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder believed to affect one in 100 children in the United States.
The study was carried out over five years, and involved 48 children between the ages of 18 and 30 months who suffered from autism but had no other health issues.
The group was divided into two sections, the first of which underwent therapy using the Denver Model, while the second was referred to community-based therapy programs.
University of Washington at Seattle specialists treated the first group for 20 hours a week, in two sessions of two hours each, five days a week.
The children in the first group also received five hours of parent-delivered therapy a week.
At the end of the study, the children in the first group had improved their IQ scores by approximately 18 points, compared to an improvement of approximately 10 points in the second group, the researchers said.
Seven of the children receiving the Denver Model therapy showed enough improvement in their overall skills that their diagnosis was downgraded from autism to a milder condition, while only one child in the second group improved as significantly.
"We believe that the ESDM group made much more progress because it involved carefully structured teaching and a relationship-based approach to learning with many, many learning opportunities embedded in play," said Sally Rogers, a co-author of the study and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of California, Davis.
She also stressed the benefits of beginning the therapy at the earliest possible age.
"Infant brains are quite malleable so with this therapy we're trying to capitalize on the potential of learning than an infant's brain has in order to limit autism's deleterious effects, to help children lead better lives."