The study was published online December 8, 2010, in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
Although some research suggests that ASD may be reliably diagnosed earlier than the current average age of 3 years, few interventions have been tested in children younger than 3.
During the course of typical development, children learn to interact with others in socially meaningful ways. Measures of social communication include:
- Initiation of joint attention -- spontaneously directing others' attention to something of interest, such as by pointing or holding something up to show for social purposes rather than to ask for help
- Affect sharing -- sharing emotions with others through facial expressions paired with eye contact
- Socially engaged imitation -- imitating others' actions while showing social connectedness through eye contact.
Deficits in such measures are hallmark symptoms of ASD and can severely limit a child's ability to engage in and learn from interactions with others or from the world around them.
"This new report is encouraging, as the effects on social behavior appear to provide a scaffold for the development of skills beyond the research setting," said NIMH Director Thomas R. Insel, M.D. "We need better early interventions for the core deficits of autism."
The interventions were designed to encourage children to make frequent and intentional efforts to engage others in communication or play. The single difference between interventions was that the IS group received more opportunities for joint attention, affect sharing, and socially engaged imitation. The toddlers were assessed at the start and end of the intervention and again six months later.
Children in both groups made improvements in social, cognitive and language skills during the six-month intervention period. Children who received IS made greater and more rapid gains than those in the non-IS group.
The researchers also noted that children in the IS group used their newly acquired abilities with different people, locations, and type of activity. This is noteworthy because children with ASD have particular difficulty doing so. They tend to use new skills mostly within familiar routines and situations.
- Rebecca J. Landa, Katherine C. Holman, Allison H. O’Neill, Elizabeth A. Stuart. Intervention targeting development of socially synchronous engagement in toddlers with autism spectrum disorder: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 2010; DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2010.02288.x