Autism researchers at the University of Washington will take the initial step in attempting to prevent the developmental disorder when they launch an $11.3 million study this week.
The UW’s Autism Center has begun looking for 200 Seattle-area infants, 6 months old or younger, who have an older sibling diagnosed with autism. They will be part of the first study designed to prevent autism symptoms from developing in children who are at high risk for the disorder.
While the latest research shows that autism affects as many as one in every 150 newborns in the United States, about one of every 20 infants who have an older sibling with autism will develop the disorder.
“This is the first trial to attempt to intervene and treat infants who are at risk for autism at the earliest time that symptoms are present,” said Annette Estes, associate director of the UW Autism Center and research assistant professor of psychiatry and behavior science, who will head clinical assessment component of the new study.
“Other research has shown that the earlier the intervention the better the outcome in treating children with autism. One of our goals is to be able to identify autism as early as possible before obvious symptoms show up so we can intervene while the connections in a child’s brain are still plastic.
“At the same time we will be trying to identify early risk factors for autism, something we could do if we had genetic markers. Right now we can’t reliably identify autism until about 24 months of age. We will be looking at genetics, neurobiology and a number of early behavioral measures to predict which children will develop autism,” she said.
Infants selected to participate in the prevention study will be given a preliminary assessment and then will be divided into two groups. Half of the infants will be monitored by specialists and referred for community treatment. The other infants and their mothers will participate in an intervention at the UW Autism Center that promotes first relationships. Mothers will be trained to engage their infants in eye contact and each mother and child will be videotaped interacting once a week for nine weeks.
All of the children in both groups will be evaluated when they are 12 months old. Those in the UW treatment group then will participate in an early intensive intervention program. At 24 months, the children will be re-evaluated to see if the intervention reduces the symptoms of autism.
The research is funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Development, which recently named the UW Autism Center one of six new Autism Centers of Excellence.
The new grant also will enable UW scientists to continue work unraveling other aspects of autism, including searching for genes related to autism susceptibility, brain imaging, linguistic and social responses to speech in autism, and risk and protective factors associated with autism in children with the disorder and in their family members.