Baby therapy might boost a child’s social development so much that it could result in them falling below the threshold for a clinical diagnosis of autism, new research suggests.
A diagnosis of autism at the age of three was only a third as likely in children who received the parent-led pre-emptive intervention, compared to those who received treatment as usual, the study found.
Researchers say this is the first time such an improvement has been demonstrated, and the landmark findings could have very big implications.
The therapy used video-feedback to help parents understand the unique abilities of their baby, and to use these strengths as a foundation for future development.
Parents or carers were able to watch clips of them interacting with the child, and use expert guidance to help shape future interactions, leading to improved communication.
Professor Jonathan Green from the University of Manchester, said: “These findings are the first evidence that a pre-emptive intervention during infancy could lead to such a significant improvement in children’s social development that they then fell below the threshold for a clinical diagnosis of autism.
“Many therapies for autism have tried previously to replace developmental differences with more ‘typical’ behaviours.
“In contrast, iBASIS-VIPP works with each child’s unique differences and creates a social environment around the child that helps them learn in a way that was best for them.”
Researchers found it did this to the extent that they were less likely to meet the diagnostic criteria for autism.
While the children falling below the diagnostic threshold still had developmental difficulties, by working with each child’s unique differences, rather than trying to counter them, the therapy effectively supported their development through early childhood.
Prof Green added: “With this therapy we are providing support before a diagnosis is given – and parents overwhelmingly want this.
“The finding is consistent with previous findings which increases our confidence in the reality of the results.
“This evidence could have a massive impact on clinical practice and public health, not that many clinical trials have such potential.”
The research was led by Professor Andrew Whitehouse, of the University of Western Australia, who said given the high prevalence of autism worldwide, the implications of the findings were enormous.
He added: “This is a genuine landmark moment for child health research.
“Our aim is to understand each child’s strengths and challenges so that we can better support and nurture the unique abilities they bring to this world.
“This is an important step forward in what we hope is an opportunity to develop new clinical models that use very early intervention in babies showing early behavioural signs of autism.”
Prof Green said autism is currently a priority for the long-term plan of the NHS, adding: “There are many babies who show early concerns, not all go on to develop autism.
“But there are a lot of babies who could benefit from this.”
While Prof Whitehouse said: “The clinical impact that could be immediate is really gobsmacking.”
The four-year clinical trial enrolled babies aged 9-14 months to investigate the impacts of iBASIS-VIPP (Video Interaction for Promoting Positive Parenting).
All babies had shown early behavioural signs of autism.
Over five months, half received the video intervention, while a control group received current best practice treatment.
Eighty-nine children completed an assessment at the start of the study, at the end of the therapy period, and when they were two and three years of age.
The researchers stress that their findings are not a cure for autism, and that the intervention improved social engagement.
They add that some services use diagnosis as an entry point, and that their findings highlight the flaws of such systems.
The University of Manchester scientists, part of an international research team led by CliniKids at the Telethon Kids Institute in Australia, advocate for needs-based services, rather than diagnosis-based services.
The findings are published in the JAMA Paediatrics journal.