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Autism: Can Early Intervention Improve Social and Communication Skills?

April 25, 2011
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Every 20 minutes, a new case of autism is diagnosed. Because there is no way to medically detect autism, one of the early signs that may indicate a child could be autistic is his inability to communicate or interact with others. While this can be painfully frustrating for parents, a December 2010 study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) suggests that targeted early intervention improves social and communication skills among toddlers with autism.

Toddlers with typical development generally begin communicating with others by pointing to a person or toy, showing emotions by smiling and making eye contact and imitating the actions of adults and children around them, according to the NIMH. For toddlers with autism spectrum disorders, these behaviors generally do not occur, severely limiting a child's ability to interact socially, the NIMH reports.

Using interaction as the basis of the study, researchers led two six-month intervention groups for toddlers between 21 and 33 months. In both groups, toddlers were encouraged to socialize by playing and communicating. However, one group provided more opportunities to interact through a technique called Interpersonal Synchrony (IS), in which the children draw attention to an interesting object, share emotions and imitate the actions of others while making eye contact.

Although both groups showed improvement in social and language skills, the IS group made progress more quickly than the other. Also, the children in the IS group were able to use their skills with different people, locations and activities - a significant step given that autistic children generally are unsettled by the unfamiliar. Six months after the intervention, the children in the IS group were able to retain the social skills they gained during the intervention, while their counterparts lost the progress they made during the intervention.

Experts agree that there is a need for better early intervention programs to address some of the more common effects of autism, making the results of the study particularly encouraging. Anyone who would like to learn more about autism can find resources and attend community events during April, which is National Autism Awareness Month.

‹‹ Back to this week's Monday Morning Report.


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