Two studies have emphasized the need for early screening and treatment of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Unlike previous research that suggests children should be screened at or after age three, these studies show that autism may be detectable within the first 15 months of life.1 Early treatment between age 1-2 showed significantly more alleviation in ASD symptoms than treatment that was initiated between ages 2-3.2
Autism in infants can be detected within the first 15 months
The first of two studies took place over ten years. Researchers included data from 110 children who were diagnosed with ASD between age 2-3.1 Home videos from the first year of life were collected from parents along with parental interviews. These videos were taken prior to suspected ASD.
The researchers studied developmental variables indicative of ASD. Variables included eye contact, lack of reaction to parental voices, and motor development delay, to name a few.
Of the 110 children studied, 98 (89%) showed signs of their autism disorder within their first fifteen months of life.
ASD symptoms alleviated more with earlier intervention
The second study followed two groups of children. One group included 39 toddlers aged 24-36 months diagnosed with ASD.2 The second group included 45 infants aged 12-24 months; 38 were diagnosed with ASD, while 7 were considered “high-risk” for autism. Each child received ASD treatment using the Mifne Approach.
The Mifne Approach was created at the Mifne Center and incorporates both attachment theory and family therapy in treating ASD and “high-risk” autism cases in children aged 2-3. The therapy uniquely involves the immediate family and provides support and teaches coping strategies to the family to help cultivate a healthier environment for the infant with ASD.
The study included assessment of the following areas: Communication, Play, Functioning, and Engagement.
Communication measures included pointing, speech, and language comprehension, while Play included curiosity, concentration, and creativity. Functioning consisted of fine and gross motor coordination, eating manner and eating amount. Engagement was graded based on physical and eye contact, detachment, and obsessions. These criteria were measured and graded by therapists at the end of therapy sessions, via video recordings, and parental interviews.
Compared to before treatment, both groups of children exhibited improved engagement measures in all criteria categories, however the most significant improvement was seen in the infant group. Similar trends were observed for communication, play, and functioning. These findings suggest that there is an optimal window for treating ASD that occurs within the first two years of life.
The study notes that due to the significant brain development that occurs under the age of two, the brain at this point is quite malleable, which can be advantageous when treating ASD.
Leader of both studies, Dr. Hanna A. Alonim, stated, “These two studies confirm that there is a window of opportunity and it makes complete sense that early detection and intervention will affect neuroanatomical development components at a stage which is most influential for the rapidly developing brain, even to the extent that the full-blown manifestation of autism can be prevented from escalation.”3
These findings contradict previous findings that suggest intervention should take place at or after age three and emphasize the need for earlier screening and intervention.
- Alonim, H,A. et al. (2021). A Retrospective Study of Prodromal Variables Associated with Autism among a Global Group of Infants during their First Fifteen Months of Life. International Journal of Pediatrics & Neonatal Care; 7: 178. Doi: 10.15344/2455-2364/2021/178.
- Alonim, H.A. et al. (2021). A Comparative Study of Infants and Toddlers Treated with the Mifne Approach Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder. International Journal of Pediatrics & Neonatal Care; 7: 179. Doi: 10.15344/2455-2364/2021/179.
- Oberlander, E. (2021). Autism can be identified as early as the first year of life. EurekAlert! Accessed Jan. 13, 2022. Retrieved from https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/939075.
Image by thedanw from Pixabay