Parent-mediated therapy may help babies at risk of developing autism

Video-based intervention for families may reduce the severity of emerging signs of the condition

The earliest autism intervention study in the world has suggested that a video-based therapy for families with babies with a high likelihood of autism may reduce the severity of emerging signs of autism. This study is the first of its kind to work with babies in their first year of life who have a sibling with autism and are therefore at higher risk of developing the condition.

Previous research has found that the earliest markers of autism; such as not paying attention to a parent, reduced social interest or engagement, and decreased eye contact, may be present as early as a child’s first year of life. This latest study carried out by a team of scientists from Birkbeck, the University of Manchester and the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, aimed to reduce these early symptoms and lower the likelihood of the child developing difficulties associated with autism later on in childhood. The results were published today in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

The intervention, delivered by teams at the University of Manchester and assessed by teams at Birkbeck and King’s, was an adapted version of the already established Video Interaction for Promoting Positive Parenting Programme (iBASIS-VIPP). The 54 families who took part in the study received a minimum of six home-based visits from a therapist who used video-feedback to help the parents understand and respond to their baby’s individual communication style to improve infant attention, communication, early language development, and social engagement. The infants received the intervention for five months, from the age of nine months to 14 months. Assessments were made from the end of treatment at 15 months, at 27 months and then at 39 months.   

After 39 months, families who received the video therapy showed improvements in infant engagement, attention and social behaviour. There was also a noticeable positive impact on parent-infant interactions. 

Although the findings are encouraging, the authors caution that because of the relatively limited number of participants, they cannot be conclusive. Larger studies will be needed before researchers can make definitive conclusions about the therapy’s effect on reducing the severity of autism symptoms.

Professor Mark Johnson, who led the Birkbeck team, said: “Early diagnosis and intervention are key to improving outcomes for children with autism and their families. It is exciting to see, for the first time, that intervention using video feedback, and led by parents can have a positive impact very early on.

"The next step will be to replicate the study on a larger scale to assess whether it is an effective option for families who have a child with an autism diagnosis or genetic risk of autism.”

Michelle from Dudley took part in the study. Her daughter Natalie was considered at an increased risk, following the diagnosis of a sibling, an older brother, with autism. She said: “Fighting for my first child’s diagnosis, and learning how to support a child with autism was tough, so when our daughter was born we were determined that the same thing wouldn’t happen.

"We were so glad to come across this study when Natalie was just three months old. We’ve loved taking part in the iBasis project, and wish we’d had an opportunity like this when our eldest was young. I hope that this research can help develop tools for professionals and families so that children at risk of autism or waiting for a diagnosis, get the help that they need much earlier.”

Dr Kathryn Adcock, Head of Neurosciences and Mental Health at the Medical Research Council, said: “Although this is quite a small study and therefore can’t provide a definitive answer, the work shows very promising indications of the benefits of early intervention.”

Jon Spiers, CEO of Autistica, the UK’s leading autism research charity who provided initial funding for the study, said: “Parents often sense their child is developing differently very early on, yet getting a diagnosis of autism can take years. Being able to deliver an intervention during this uncertain period would be a promising step forward for many thousands of families. We are pleased to have provided funding for this initial study and are calling for urgent further investment in similar early intervention studies in autism.“

The study was funded by Autistica, The Waterloo Foundation and Autsim Speaks US; and the UK Medical Research Council and the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre for Mental Health at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and King’s College London.

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