Video-based therapy may benefit babies at risk for autism

autism therapy

As many as one in 50 school-age children in the U.S. are diagnosed with autism.

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Video-based therapy may help babies at high risk of autism improve their interactions with others, suggests a first-of-its-kind study. The research, published in the Jan. 21 online issue of The Lancet Psychiatry, reports that when parents of children who already have a sibling with autism received video-based lessons on how to work with their infants, the babies were moderately more engaged with other people and were more attentive and social.

“Children with autism typically receive treatment beginning at 3 to 4 years old. But our findings suggest that targeting the earliest risk markers of autism – such as lack of attention or reduced social interest or engagement – during the first year of life may lessen the development of these symptoms later on,” lead author Jonathan Green, FRCPsych, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Manchester in England, said in a news release .

For the study, researchers looked at 54 babies ages 7 to 10 months who were considered at risk for autism because they had an older sibling with the disease. Among this group, 28 families were randomly selected to participate in the video-based therapy program. The remaining 26 families received no intervention and served as a control group.

Families in the intervention group were visited by therapists who videoed the parents’ interactions with their infants. The therapists then reviewed the videos with the parents, showing them how they

could improve their interactions to help develop the babies’ attention span, communication abilities, language development and social engagement.

According to study researcher Mayada Elsabbagh, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Montreal’s McGill University, in autism there are very subtle, atypical behaviors that may cause infants to be less sensitive and responsive to social signals from their mothers. For example, a parent may “insist on a given toy or activity that the infant is not interested in and try to get the infant to respond. So this is the cycle the intervention focuses on breaking very early on, before the child becomes more and more distant,” Elsabbagh explained in Scientific American .

After five months and at least six therapy sessions, the researchers found that the babies of families who received the video interventions showed a higher rate of improvement in engagement, attention and social behaviors than those who did not receive the therapy. They reported changes in the parents’ behavior as well.

Study author Green acknowledged that the babies in the study were still too young to be assessed for autism – diagnoses usually occurs at age 2 or 3 – but said video-based therapy suggested that the plasticity in young brains may help lessen autism symptoms later on. More research is needed, he said, before the efficacy of intervention can be verified.

“We would never want to say that early intervention is the only thing that’s needed in autism,” Green told Scientific American. “But there’s something about early development that might be amenable to intervention.”

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