In a pioneering effort across North America a network of scientists are looking for signs of autism in infants as early as 6 months and trying to determine whether they can benefit from specific treatments.
“What you ultimately might be doing is preventing a certain proportion of autism from ever emerging,” said David Mandell, the associate director of the Center for Autism Research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “I’m not saying you’re curing these kids, but you may be changing their developmental trajectory by intervening early enough that they never go on to meet criteria for the disorder. And you can’t do that if you keep waiting for the full disorder to emerge.”
Sally Rogers, a MIND Institute researcher has developed a treatment program called Infant Start, based on a daily therapy, the Early Start Denver Model.
Experimental treatments like Infant Start are intended to address the social environment the baby grows up in, and to see whether changes at home might alter the biological development of the condition once triggered. If a baby starts focusing on objects instead of faces, the theory goes, a “developmental cascade” can begin: brain circuits meant for reading faces are used for something else, like processing light or objects, and babies lose their ability to learn the emotional cues normally taught by watching facial expressions. The longer a baby’s brain runs this developmental course, the harder it becomes to intervene.
“Most babies come into the world with a built-in magnet for people,” Ms. Rogers said. “One thing we know about autism is that it weakens that magnet. It’s not that they’re not interested, they have a little less draw to people. So how do we increase our magnetic appeal for his attention? Patty-cake and peek-a-boo or tickle games, those are people games.” Ms. Rogers has parents focus on helping their infant to look at them, exchange smiles, to respond to his name, to babble with them, and simple social interactions that occur in the normal routine of feeding, dressing, bathing and changing the baby.
– Carma Mordecai