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Video-based therapy for babies to prevent autism

Posted on 27/01/2015
Video-based therapy for babies to prevent autism

A new form of video-based therapy has been tested to treat infants at familial risk for autism as early as seven months by researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neurosciece (IoPPN), University of Manchester, and Birkbeck, and recently published in Lancet Psychiatry.

Treatment for autism currently starts when the child is around three or four years old and showing typical symptoms such as not speaking in full sentences, not enjoying interaction with others and avoiding eye contact, but there is general consensus among researchers that earlier treatment is likely to lead to better outcomes, as development of the brain can be diverted from paths that lead to autism. In this study, infants from 54 families aged 7-10 months were chosen based on their having a sibling with autism, which makes them high risk as 20% of siblings of autistic children will themselves go on to have a diagnosis. After five months of treatment, the infants were better at paying attention and were better at switching their attention from one object to another. 

“This is the first controlled trial that has been run with infants at familial risk of autism in the first year of life. The results are encouraging but will require further follow-up of the sample which we are doing now and also replication in larger more powerful studies,” said Professor Tony Charman, Department of Psychology, IoPPN, who was a co-author on the study along with Dr Vicky Slomins from St Thomas’s, and Professor Andrew Pickles and Dr Rachael Bedford, from the Department of Biostatistics, also at the IoPPN.

The innovative therapy involved filming parents interacting with their infants and later analysing the video footage in the company of the parents highlighting how the infants were showing subtle early signs of autism. The idea was for the parents to recognise the subtle behaviour and develop ways to respond so their infant was more likely to engage and interact. 

“We think the therapy works by aiding parents to become more attuned and better readers of their infants communication style,” said Professor Charman. “This would lead to enhanced interactions between parent and infant and, in turn, encourage the infants to become more attentive and responsive.”

Although the study hasn’t yet been able to record the proportion of participant infants that went on to develop autism, early signs showed the treatment could help them develop new behaviours and so avoid autistic traits later down the line. The research is a first step in finding potential new early intervention treatments for infants at high risk of developing autism that may lead to them requiring less therapy and obtaining better outcomes. Professor Charman said: 

“What we hope to eventually demonstrate is that by changing something critical in the environment we can push the neurodevelopmental processes back on a typical trajectory. That’s the theoretical hope.”

The study was led by Professor Jonathan Green, University of Manchester and Professor Mark Johnson, Birkbeck, London.

Paper reference: Green, J. et al. ‘Parent-mediated intervention versus no intervention for infants at high risk of autism: a parallel, single-blind, randomised trial’ published in Lancet Psychiatry DOI: 10.1016/S2215-0366(14)00091-1  

For further information contact Tom Bragg, Press Officer at IoPPN, King’s College London, on +44(0)2078485377 or email tom.bragg@kcl.ac.uk

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