Tackling Autism In Babies? Small Study An 'Absolute Miracle,' Says Mom

Research out this week suggests that it’s never too early to begin therapy to treat some of the defining symptoms of autism. Karen Weintraub reports on the promising new findings in USA Today under the headline, "Study: Autism Signs In Babies Can Be Erased."

Karen expands on her report here:

In a small pilot study — the first to look at starting therapy in babies this young — researchers at the University of California Davis’ MIND Institute, began treating 7 babies who showed symptoms likely to turn into autism later. By their third birthdays, five of the children no longer exhibited any symptoms of autism, and a sixth was diagnosed with mild autism.

Because the study was so small, and autism cannot reliably be diagnosed in infancy, the researchers stopped short of calling the treatment a breakthrough. But they said they will be following up with a larger study, which they hoped would confirm the results.

One mother involved in the trial described the treatment as “an absolute miracle” for her daughter, Isabel. The mother, Megan, asked not to be fully identified, but talked openly about the trial and its benefits for her family.

At nine months old, Isabel wouldn’t turn her head when someone walked into a room calling her name. She never babbled, Megan said. She was physically delayed in fine and gross motor skills, and didn’t seem to know how to play with toys. All those are signs commonly seen in children who go on to be diagnosed with autism.

Megan heard about the trial through her pediatrician and the family - including Isabel’s dad and her older brother – moved from the Seattle area to Sacramento, so they could participate in the study.

In 12 weekly sessions, lead researcher Sally Rogers coached Megan and her husband John as they played with baby Isabel. Where most children will smile or giggle when happy, Isabel’s facial expressions didn’t change much; where others might cry if scared by a loud sound, Isabel rarely reacted to anything in her environment. But Rogers showed them that Isabel might glance over quickly when she was interested or look at her hands when something was too loud or overwhelming – cues that Megan and John could take to do more or less of whatever they were doing.

Once they learned to “speak” Isabel’s language, Megan said she and John were able to react to her and engage with their baby for the first time. Eventually, through this interaction, Isabel learned that she could communicate – and have fun doing it. That primed her to learn even more, Megan said.

Megan said she and her husband would never have figured out what to do without the coaching.

Isabel’s cues were too subtle, she said, and she and John needed to be taught the progressive steps so they could take Isabel through each one in turn.

“As she got farther along, there would be more spontaneous learning, but that’s because she had laid the groundwork,” Megan said.

Shortly after turning three in April, Isabel was assessed again, and was deemed to be a perfectly typical toddler. “She was at least average in every category,” her mother said. “In some areas, she was months and months ahead – even in some of her language skills. That was pretty mind-blowing.”

Even if Isabel hadn’t improved so much, the trial would have been worthwhile, Megan said, because it allowed her to feel like she was doing whatever she could to help her child.

Now, parenting Isabel has become much more fun, Megan said, and Isabel now adores and plays all sorts of games with her big brother.

“It’s just a rich time,” Megan said. “We’re discovering who she is and watching her personality blossom from being completely shut down. Just now we were at the park and she was a little dragon breathing fire.”


More from WBUR

Listen Live