development

Autism is diagnosed starting at age 2. But what can we do before then?

In recent years, autism has been at the forefront of many discussions in pediatrics. Its prevalence has increased from 1 in 150 children to 1 in 59 over the last 20 years according to the CDC[i]and this is likely due in large part to our ever-growing knowledge of the condition and efforts promoting early diagnosis. Research thus far has shown that early diagnosis and intervention have been instrumental in generating positive outcomes. But how early can we start “therapy” for autism when it can’t even be diagnosed until 24 months of age? We now have research to show that pediatricians should be encouraging parents to consistently talk to their young children even if they aren’t getting any responses back.[ii]

A recent study published in the journal Autism Research delved a bit deeper into the concept of early intervention.[iii]Dr. Meghan Swanson conducted a study looking at 96 infants, 60 of whom had an older sibling with autism. Such a design was necessary given the age restriction on diagnosis and that younger siblings of children with autism have a 20% chance of having autism as well. This statistic was proven true as 14 of those 60 subjects were later diagnosed with autism at 24 months (23%). Dr. Swanson’s method was to monitor 2 full days of audio in the child’s home via LENA audio software- one day when the child was 9 months old and again at 15 months. The LENA software counts number of words as well as “conversation turns,” meaning when one person speaks and another responds. The content of what is said is not evaluated. The subjects’ language skills were then later assessed at 24 months. 

As mentioned, 14 of the subjects were ultimately diagnosed with autism and were placed in the “high-familial-risk who have ASD” group. The remaining subjects were divided into 2 groups: 1) those with older siblings affected by autism but who did not have autism themselves (high-familial-risk who did not have ASD, n=46) and 2) low-familial-risk who exhibited typical development (n=36). The conclusions of the study were two-fold. First and most important, a richer home language environment with higher numbers of adult words and conversational turns correlated to better language development for ALL study groups. Second, higher parent education levels corresponded to richer home language environment. 

As these results show, the benefit from caregiver interaction particularly in the realm of reciprocal spoken language is not restricted to typically developing children. Pediatricians should advise parents to enhance their child’s development from birth by speaking to them regardless of whether they are able to respond appropriately or at all. To be clear, autism is not a diagnosis that is caused by parenting style. The diagnosis will be present or not regardless of parental intervention. However, this study shows that frequent and early communication from birth can improve language development even in children with autism. Additionally, there are centers available that can provide more directed therapies for children struggling with language, social skills, and other developmental milestones. Life Skills Autism Academy is opening its flagship location in Plano, Texas where children 18 months to 5 years can receive personalized one-on-one therapy and assistance in developing an appropriate Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and advocating for the child in the school system.[iv]

Pediatricians can share this knowledge to help all their infant patients improve language development and kickstart their learning with the goal of success in school and beyond. 

Rachel Tonnis, MD


[i]https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html 

[ii]https://utdallas.edu/news/research/autism-language-skills-study-2019/

[iii]Swanson, Meghan R. “Early language exposure supports later language skills in infants with and without autism.” Wiley Online Library. Dallas, TX. 1 Sep. 2019. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/aur.2163.

[iv]https://www.dallasnews.com/business/health-care/2019/08/29/life-skills-autism-academy-opening-in-plano-plans-to-provide-one-on-one-therapy/

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Why A Strong Start Is Important

All children deserve a fair chance at a bright future, and the greatest window of opportunity to make a positive impact occurs during the years between birth and kindergarten. During this time, children develop very quickly, both physically and mentally.

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