The Importance of Early Intervention

Certainly, we are all too familiar with the unfortunate reality that there is no tailor-made treatment for all forms of autism. Different combinations of drugs that may work well in some individuals may be ineffective in others, and the same rule seems to apply to therapy and other forms of care. However, there is one form of treatment that proves effective in every single application: early intervention. With incredible improvements in diagnostic techniques, specialists are now able to diagnose autism spectrum disorders in infants as young as six months.

The above study, published in the journal Pediatrics and conducted by researchers at the University of Washington, provides solid, empirical evidence as to the positive effects of early intervention. Autistic infants and toddlers as young as 18 months were placed into specially designed groups administered by UW specialists. The children placed into the specialized groups received approximately 20 hours of therapy a week from the UW team, and five hours a week of parent-led therapy. Five years after the beginning of the study, researchers noted an 18 point increase in IQ among the children involved in the study, compared to the four point improvement of children in the control group (a standard community intervention group). Moreover, children in the specialized group also improved receptive language skills (listening to and understanding speech) by 18 points, compared to 10 points in the control group.

Clearly, the application of intensive, early and specialized intervention in children with autism can prove to be quite effective. But what does this all mean? Plainly, it allows autistic individuals access to care at a younger age, when the brain and cognitive systems are in their nascent stages of development. The earlier an autistic child receives care, the better his or her prospects for living a fruitful and productive life become. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends screening for autism at 18 and 24 month check-ups, simply to reinforce the idea that autism, when caught early, can be treated even more effectively. For all of the advancements we have made in the past few decades, for all of the science that has helped revolutionize treatment, nothing can replace early intervention as the most effective weapon for combating autism.

Ben Rimland is an Intern at the Autism Science Foundation. 

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