Skip to main content

Autism Research Reveals Benefits of Early Intervention, Rapid Detection

Intensive training of autistic children at early age delivers significant advances their abilities. | Sergey Novikov/Adobe Stock

The early introduction of behavioral interventions for autistic children can significantly improve a child’s adaptive social abilities, cognitive skills, language interactions and attention capacity, according to an Oct. 4 panel discussion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Age-appropriate, fun and daily activities between parents and autistic children can help form positive relationships through exercises such as one that teaches autistic children how to focus on faces and objects, said Geraldine Dawson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University and director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development.

Autism detection early in life opens the door to such intensive training by therapists and parents using the Early Start Denver Model – an approach that exposes autistic children aged 18 to 30 months to regular interpersonal exchanges and activities, noted Dawson. The practice has been shown to produce behavioral improvements and enhanced learning abilities.

Dozens of follow-up studies have since confirmed the gains of early interventions, she said, including one that found six-year-olds who had undergone intensive interactions held on to the advances. Overall, the six-year-old subjects retained advanced IQ levels, presented more adaptive behavior and demonstrated fewer symptoms of autism spectrum disorder, she said.

After tracing the cost of autism as it mounts and spreads over a lifetime due to ongoing medical, therapeutic, behavioral and learning interventions and adult services, Dawson cited research finding early intensive intervention has been shown to reduce such costs by $19,000 a year.

The lecture was the final in the Neuroscience & Society lecture series presented through a partnership between AAAS and the Dana Foundation that has offered some two dozen public lectures since June 2012. The sessions have explored topics including the aging brain, meditation, the opioid epidemic, sleep and dreaming, video games and the science of lying.

The final lecture also featured presentations by Dr. Daniel H. Geschwind, director of the Center for Autism Research and Treatment at the University of California, Los Angles and Janine La Salle, professor of medical microbiology and immunology at the University of California, Davis. The panel discussion was moderated by Dr. Barry Gordon, a therapeutic cognitive neuroscience professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine.


Dr. Daniel H. Geschwind, left, Janine LaSalle and Geraldine Dawson study genetics, the epigenetics of neurodevelopmental disorders and behavioral sciences, respectively in efforts to advance autism treatment. | Chip Kuhn/4Site Interactive Studios

Scientific research has revealed promising ways to improve autism detection in at-risk infants through the use of technologies such as an electroencephalogram that charts electoral brain activities, neuroimaging by MRIs, genome sequencing, and behavioral tests to record attention levels, eye contact and sound formation.

Geschwind outlined progress being made in identifying the genetic and genomic factors that make an infant susceptible to the autism spectrum disorder. He too pointed to the importance of diagnosing the syndrome and engaging in intervention as early as possible.

“Knowing the genetic basis of the disorder has potentially significant implications for treatment and prevention,” he said. “From my perspective, it provides hope for the future in terms of identifying the mechanism of the disease and over the next decade or so targeting the therapy toward that. It’s a long road to hoe but that’s our hope.”

La Salle explored how epigenetic studies of the impact of changes in gene expression can advance understanding of autism and produce new treatments.

A focal point of research she and her team are focusing on is the importance of the maternal environment, which is a rich venue for discovering and targeting factors that increase risks for autism, including in utero environmental exposures that emerge from what a mother eats to what she breathes. Exposure to pesticides and air pollution have been shown to increase risk of autism for babies born to mothers exposed to such environmental factors, she said. 

“All current evidence points to prenatal risk factors for autism spectrum disorders,” said La Salle.

Her team has taken on the challenge of determining whether tissues that are part of the birth process – the placenta and cord blood – can help identify epigenetic biomarkers to predict if a child has an elevated risk for autism, a finding that might accelerate the treatment process.

“In the future, hopefully, you could use this information to affect medical and societal policy changes that really value that period of time, before and during pregnancy; that is the most important time for health care to identify at-risk infants and intervene early and often,” La Salle said.

[Associated image: Sergey Novikov/Adobe Stock]



Anne Q. Hoy

Related Focus Areas