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UC-Davis Study: Pre-Toddler Treatment Shortens Autism Therapy Significantly

A pilot study released yesterday shows remarkable success in treating extremely young children with autism symptoms — some as young as six months — with applied behavior analysis, known as ABA therapy.

The length of ABA therapy necessary for success was significantly shortened with early intervention, according to Sally Rogers, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the UC-Davis MIND Institute and co-author of the study, which was published today in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

“I was surprised at how quickly they responded, and particularly surprised at how quickly language developed,” Rogers said. “It was both pleasing and surprising that most of them began to talk between the first and second birthday, right around the time they’re supposed to start talking.”

The pilot program has a small sample size of seven children, ranging from six to 15 months old. The children were not diagnosed with autism but exhibited autism symptoms, such as repetitive behavior and lack of eye contact. Those symptoms were significantly reduced to the point where there was no sign of autism or delay at 3 years old, according to the study.

“It’s a little pilot study,” Rogers said. “We’re just seeing if we can identify kids this early, and see whether there can be a change in development over time. We can’t test the causality or the proof. It was more testing the hope that this was the case.”

The idea is that ABA therapy, in simple terms, is somewhat like rewiring the brain, getting the brain responses to line up in a different way — and that it might be easier for that therapy to work on younger brains.

“That’s the hypothesis, to develop therapies sooner and younger because younger children learn more rapidly,” Rogers said.

The study’s release comes as California is changing its policies for Medi-Cal coverage of autism treatment to include ABA therapy.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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