Researchers at the UCSB Koegel Autism Center recently completed a study in which they successfully treated three infants for autism, with plans to expand their research and provide more infants with such treatment.
Koegel Autism Center Director Robert Koegel, and his wife Lynn Koegel, Director of Clinical Services, co-authored the study and found that mild behavioral intervention in infants who showed clear signs of autism spectrum disorders effectively eradicated those symptoms. Although autism is not generally diagnosed until around at least 18 months of age, disengagement in social interaction is noticeable much earlier and is one of the hallmark signs of the disorder.
Before engaging in the treatment, infants would not respond to social activities in a typical manner, and instead would seem distressed or disengaged when taking part in activities that entertained other children. Researchers spent one to three months teaching the infants to react in a more socially responsive manner to social stimuli.
According to Lynn Koegel, initially the infants would only respond to a small fraction of the games presented by their parents, but over time treatment practices conditioned them to fully engage with all stimuli. The three babies would then be gradually introduced to new stimuli, until they engaged with everything in the same way other children would.
“Typical infants might be interested in anything you do. But these infants, maybe out of 20 different activities, would only like three of them,” Lynn Koegel said. “We tried to develop an intervention. We found activities that the kids liked and then we had the parents engage in those activities for very short periods of time.”
Once researchers detected what activities the infants found most desirable, the infants were further engaged through these activities and parents participated in activities such as taking walks with the infants.
According to Lynn Koegel, all three infants caught up to their peers in terms of social engagement and no longer showed signs of autism once they concluded treatment.
“By the end of the intervention, they were engaging in all of the activities like typical kids who are really social,” Lynn Koegel said.
In response to concerns that the diagnoses may have been premature, as the children were too young to be confirmed with autism, Lynn Koegel said the three children did actually reflect all of the pre-linguistic symptoms of the disorder.
Furthermore, the results achieved will likely remain permanent, according to Robert Koegel, who said the three children may not require any additional treatment since past experiments involving similar results had favorable outcomes.
“[In] some of the work that we’ve done with toddlers, where we’ve been able to measure their actual brain … the intervention looks like it moves their brain to becoming normal, and if that’s the case, then they’re never going to go back,” Robert Koegel said. “We suspect that that’s what is happening with the infants too, and that we’re actually repairing the brain.”
The success of the study prompted the Koegel Autism Center to collaborate with hospitals to more effectively recognize and treat autism in infants. According to Robert Koegel, treatment is more effective when patients are younger.
“We’re developing a program with various hospitals where we’ll be able to assess all newborn babies,” Robert Koegel said. “This beginning study is preliminary, but what we saw is that with a very small amount of intervention, we could get most of the babies to recover completely.”
The treatment is substantially easier to perform on infants than older children, Robert Koegel said, adding that he hopes to extend research practices to increase their application to infants and other youths with autism.
“It’s much faster, it takes much less time and it produces much bigger gains,” Robert Koegel said. “But we’re still going to have to do more work in order to address all of the children rather than just most of them.”