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Early autism intervention can rewire brain development, study finds

Published: Saturday, Aug. 1 2015 6:11 a.m. MDT

With the help of Jonelle Bohne (cq'ed), and a swinging chair, Lexie Schatz takes part in one of the classes at the Clear Horizons Academy, a school for kids with autism, in Orem Wednesday September 12, 2012. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News) With the help of Jonelle Bohne (cq'ed), and a swinging chair, Lexie Schatz takes part in one of the classes at the Clear Horizons Academy, a school for kids with autism, in Orem Wednesday September 12, 2012. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News)

A particular type of play-focused behavioral therapy called Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) may be linked to improved social behavior and normal patterns of brain activity in young children with autism, recent research finds.

"Early intervention alters the trajectory of the brain and social development in children with autism," says Geraldine Dawson, the lead study author who developed the ESDM therapy along with study co-author Sally Rogers.

Trained interventionists made home visits to half of the 48 participants 20 hours per week for ESDM for two years. The other half of the children were given routine community-based intervention.

The children were shown randomized images of neutral objects such as toys and social stimuli such as female faces at the ages of 4 to 5. Nearly 75 percent of the children in the ESDM group demonstrated cognitive processing of the faces, the Atlantic reported on Oct. 30. Only 36 percent of their non-ESDM treated counterparts had the same response, responding more to objects than to social stimuli.

Today, 1 in 88 children is diagnosed with autism, including 1 in 54 boys, according to the latest stastistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disorder, a neurodevelopmental condition, begins to become apparent around the age of 3, showing symptoms in communication, social interactions and repetitive behaviors, CNN reported.

The number of children with autism has risen dramatically over the past few decades, CNN reported. Experts have found that the earlier specialized therapy is initiated, the more significant the improved outcome.

It is critical that parents of children with autism understand the importance of playing with their children, said Sally Rogers, a study author and professor of psychiatric and behavioral sciences at the MIND Institute at the University of California Davis in Sacramento.

"Some children with autism don't know how to communicate 'Come play with me' to their parents or they don't respond to the parents as enthusiastically as other children would," Rogers said. "Parents have to take the initiative that most other children would take on their own."

Rachel Lowry is a reporter intern for the Deseret News. She has lived in London and is an English graduate from Brigham Young University. Contact her at rachel.lowry@gmail.com or visit www.rachellowry.blogspot.com.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company