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Early Therapies Found to Improve Autism Outcomes

As autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnoses among children increase in number and get made earlier in the child's life, therapies that begin at a young age are under study to see whether they can improve the long-term development of the child, and even change their brain chemistry. New research, according to, suggests such therapies may do just that:

Now researchers have been able to show that a particular type of behavioral therapy called the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) not only improves autism symptoms, but actually normalizes brain activity and improves social behavior.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that starts to become very apparent around age 3. The main signs and symptoms of autism involve communication, social interactions and repetitive behaviors. According to the latest statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 88 children currently is diagnosed with autism, including one in 54 boys.

"Early intervention alters the trajectory of the brain and social development in children with autism," says Geraldine Dawson, the lead study author who developed the ESDM therapy along with study co-author Sally Rogers.

Dawson was a researcher at the University of Washington when she helped devise ESDM; she's now the chief science officer for the advocacy and research group Autism Speaks and a professor at the University of North Carolina. Rogers is a professor and researcher at the University of California Davis MIND Institute.

ESDM therapy uses teaching methods from ABA ,or applied behavioral analysis, the traditional one-on-one interaction between a child and the therapist.

But rather than sitting at a desk next to the child -- where a teacher or therapist breaks down complex tasks into small components and gives tangible reinforcements -- children receiving ESDM are sitting on the floor, playing with their therapist or parents.It can be done just about anywhere, and Dawson says the play-based method of engaging a child helps him or her develop a social relationship.

Image: Child and adult playing, via Shutterstock