While there are known therapies for older children with autism or signs of autism, these treatments aren't appropriate for younger children who can't communicate verbally or aren't as mobile as toddlers.
"If children have significant symptoms of autism and nothing changes around them, then they are really at great risk of having ongoing, significant problems across their lifespan," said Sally Rogers, lead author of the study, which will appear in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. "The best tool for amelioration of some those problems is early intervention."
Researchers at the University of California at Davis MIND Institute followed these children from infancy until they were about 3. They also ushered concerned parents through the delicate process of leading their child's therapy.
"We were worried about that, because it is a very hard time for a family to start working on an intervention when their children are so young," said Rogers, who is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UC Davis.
The therapy focused on parent-child interactions in a setting that closely resembled a home environment. Exercises largely revolved around typical activities like baths, feedings, play and storybook reading.
"We work with all the parents about making it as easy as possible for their children to watch them and to be drawn to their faces, voices and gestures," Rogers said. "For instance, instead of reading the book with the child in their lap, we worked with parents to position themselves so their child was in front of them. So they were holding the book to the child, so the book was near [the parent's] faces."
Though the small study size -- seven children and their families -- makes it impossible to prove scientifically that the therapy was responsible, the outcome for the children was unequivocally positive: Six out of seven children caught up in learning and language skills by the time they were 3. Additionally, their development was significantly accelerated -- and only one child was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and experienced significant developmental delays by 36 months of age.
"We found that infants who were having a lot of difficulties with communication and social behavior and problems with repetitive behaviors, by age 2 or 3 most of the infants were showing typical development," Rogers said.
By comparison, there was another group of children who qualified for the study based on the severity of their symptoms but ultimately did not participate in the "Infant Start" program. Though those children did receive therapy interventions at some point after their symptoms became clear, by the time they turned 3, they displayed more developmental troubles than the "Infant Start" participants.
Perhaps just as critical as the outcome for children, parents -- who are essential to the therapy's efficacy -- reported high levels of satisfaction with the program. It was an important breakthrough, Rogers said, given that reaching children with autism and helping them can be a frustrating, daunting experience.
"They felt like they now had a way to reach their child; they felt like they could really help their child," she said. "It made them feel more effective as parents. Some of them realized that their children enjoyed them and enjoyed spending time with them."
Early onset of autism symptoms is not the norm, Rogers said. And parents who fear that their children might not have been diagnosed early enough should be aware that early treatment of symptoms when they appear is more critical than early diagnosis of symptoms that are simply not present.
And according to Rogers, the early onset symptoms don't necessarily mean that autism symptoms will be more severe for that child later in life.
"I don't think we know yet that either a regressive pattern or an early onset pattern is predictive of a poorer outcomes," she said. "Most children who are going to develop autism are not going to show symptoms at six months."
Further clinical research is also needed to prove the relationship between the outcome for these children and the "Infant Start" therapy. But for a subset of parents seeking help for young children with clear signs of trouble, this study offers hope.
"We want to take parent concerns seriously," Rogers said. "Getting action and helping parents follow through on their desire to do something more, that's important."