Parent-Led Intervention for Infants May Decrease Autism Symptoms

One-year-olds who received a parent-led intervention targeting early signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) had significantly reduced symptoms and chances of an autism diagnosis at age 3 years, in a new study.

These findings, which were published in JAMA Pediatrics, were the first evidence worldwide that a preemptive intervention during infancy could lead to such a significant improvement in children’s social development, resulting in “three times fewer diagnoses of autism at age 3,” said lead author Andrew Whitehouse, PhD, in a statement.

“No trial of a preemptive infant intervention, applied prior to diagnosis, has to date shown such an effect to impact diagnostic outcomes — until now,” he said.

Study Intervention Is a Nontraditonal Approach

Whitehouse, who is professor of Autism Research at Telethon Kids and University of Western Australia and director of CliniKids in Perth, said the intervention is a departure from traditional approaches. “Traditionally, therapy seeks to train children to learn ‘typical’ behaviors,” he said in an email. “The difference of this therapy is that we help parents understand the unique abilities of their baby, and to use these strengths as a foundation for future development.”

Whitehouse’s study included 103 children (aged approximately 12 months), who displayed at least three of five behaviors indicating a high likelihood of ASD as defined by the Social Attention and Communication Surveillance–Revised (SACS-R) 12-month checklist. The infants were randomized to receive either usual care or the intervention, which is called the iBASIS–Video Interaction to Promote Positive Parenting (iBASIS-VIPP). Usual care was delivered by community physicians, whereas the intervention involved 10 sessions delivered at home by a trained therapist.

“The iBASIS-VIPP uses video-feedback as a means of helping parents recognize their baby’s communication cues so they can respond in a way that builds their social communication development,” Whitehouse explained in an interview. “The therapist then provides guidance to the parent as to how their baby is communicating with them, and they can communicate back to have back-and-forth conversations.”

“We know these back-and-forth conversations are crucial to support early social communication development, and are a precursor to more complex skills, such as verbal language,” he added.

Reassessment of the children at age 3 years showed a “small but enduring” benefit of the intervention, noted the authors. Children in the intervention group had a reduction in ASD symptom severity (P = .04) and reduced odds of ASD classification, compared with children receiving usual care (6.7% vs 20.5%; odds ratio, 0.18; P = .02).

The findings provide “initial evidence of efficacy for a new clinical model that uses a specific developmentally focused intervention,” noted the authors. “The children falling below the diagnostic threshold still had developmental difficulties, but by working with each child’s unique differences, rather than trying to counter them, the therapy has effectively supported their development through the early childhood years,” noted Whitehouse in a statement.

Other Research Has Shown Benefits of New Study Approach

This is a “solid” study, “but, as acknowledged by the authors, the main effects are small in magnitude, and longer-term outcomes will be important to capture,” said Jessica Brian, PhD, C Psych, associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of Toronto, co-lead at the Autism Research Centre, and psychologist and clinician-investigator at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehab Hospital in Toronto.

Brian said she and her coauthors of a paper published in Autism Research and others have shown that the kind of approach used in the new study can be helpful for enhancing different areas of toddler development, but “the specific finding of reduced likelihood of a clinical ASD diagnosis is a bit different.”

The goal of reducing the likelihood of an ASD diagnosis “needs to be considered carefully, from the perspective of autism acceptance,” she added. “From an acceptance lens, the primary objective of early intervention in ASD might be better positioned as aiming to enhance or support a young child’s development, help them make developmental progress, build on their strengths, optimize outcomes, or reduce impairment…. I think the authors do a good job of balancing this perspective.”

New Study Shows Value of Parent-Mediated Interventions

Overall, Brian, who coauthored the Canadian Paediatric Society’s position statement on ASD diagnosis, lauded the findings as good news.

“It shows the value of using parent-mediated interventions, which are far less costly and are more resource-efficient than most therapist-delivered models,” she said.

“In cases where parent-mediated approaches are made available to families prior to diagnosis, there is potential for strong effects, when the brain is most amenable to learning. Such models may also be an ideal fit before diagnosis, since they are less resource-intensive than therapist-delivered models, which may only be funded by governments once a diagnosis is confirmed,” she said.

“Finally, parent-mediated programs have the potential to support parents during what, for many families, is a particularly challenging time as they identify their child’s developmental differences or receive a diagnosis. Such programs have potential to increase parents’ confidence in parenting a young child with unique learning needs.”

What Brian thought was missing from the paper was acknowledgment that, “despite early developmental gains from parent-mediated interventions, it is likely that most children with ASD will need additional supports throughout development.”

This study was sponsored by the Telethon Kids Institute. Whitehouse reported no conflicts of interest. Brian codeveloped a parent-mediated intervention for toddlers with probable or confirmed ASD (the Social ABCs), for which she does not receive any royalties.

JAMA Pediatr. Published online September 20, 2021. Full text

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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