I had been waiting y'know. Waiting a while for the paper by Sally Rogers and colleagues  to finally appear quite a few days after the media headlines about 'reducing', 'reversing' and even 'eliminating' the signs and symptoms of autism in early infancy had appeared. Personally, I prefer the New Scientist headline: 'Early autism intervention speeds infant development' given the text of the paper. I should perhaps also add the words 'for some' to that sentence as you will hopefully see...
I'm sure most people have already read about the study ins and outs: take an intervention called 'Infant Start' (IS), a relation of the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), and apply it with a small (very small) group of "symptomatic" young infants (n=7, aged between 6-15 months old) showing signs and symptoms of autism. Plot baseline measures and progress of those children under IS using various psychometric tools including something like the Autism Observation Scale for Infants (AOSI) and old reliable: the ADOS (the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule) compared against four comparison groups. One of those control groups included those with similar early autism symptoms as judged by "elevated AOSI scores and clinician concerns" but who did not receive IS; a so-called "declined referral (DR) group" (n=4). Record results and report outcome based on said 12-week program and added extra sessions a few months down the line.
The headline conclusion: "At 36 months, the treated group had much lower rates of both ASD [autism spectrum disorder] and DQs [developmental quotients] under 70 than a similarly symptomatic group who did not enroll in the treatment study". Further: "the pilot study outcomes are promising". I should add that when it came to the "final visit" and "based on standardized assessments and clinical judgement" 2 of the 7 children in the IS group did eventually receive a diagnosis of ASD/PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified). This compared with 3 of the 4 children in the DR group who met criteria for ASD/PDD-NOS (the other child "presented with intellectual disability"). Insofar as DQ - specifically "overall DQ at or below 70 at 36 months" - well, one child in the IS group fell into this category compared with 3 children in the DR group (note to authors, you've called this the 'DE' group... sorry to be pedantic). You can um-and-ah about the links between ASD and PDD-NOS for example, but suffice to say that any effect from IS was not universal across all participants included in the trial. If you'd like a few more details about the trial and results, I'll refer you to the press release from UC Davis (see here).
Of course this is not the first time that this type of very early intervention has been discussed in the peer-reviewed domain. Take for example another paper by Rogers and colleagues  (open-access) talking about the use of ESDM with a cohort of 14-24 month old toddlers "at risk for autism spectrum disorders". The results on that occasions were slightly less dramatic than the more recent ones with the caveat that "both younger child age at the start of intervention and a greater number of intervention hours were positively related to the degree of improvement in children's behavior for most variables". I talked about this in a previous post (see here). Indeed it appears that age at start of intervention might be an important variable after all.
So, where next with this research? Well, aside from some discussions reiterating how useful it would be to have something to aid early diagnosis (see here) bearing in mind that it has not been conclusively proven that all autism is present from birth (see here), discussions have turned to why such early intervention might have had the effect that it had. Brain plasticity has been mentioned, and how critical periods in early development might be particularly amenable to such intensive intervention. Of course, without the all-important "testing the treatment’s efficacy" under more controlled conditions and with larger groups, one cannot discount some role for chance in the recent findings. Not buying that as an answer? How about differing developmental trajectories then?
 Rogers SJ. et al. Autism Treatment in the First Year of Life: A Pilot Study of Infant Start, a Parent-Implemented Intervention for Symptomatic Infants. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 2014. 12 September.
 Rogers SJ. et al. Effects of a brief Early Start Denver model (ESDM)-based parent intervention on toddlers at risk for autism spectrum disorders: a randomized controlled trial. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2012 Oct;51(10):1052-65.
S. J. Rogers, L. Vismara, A. L. Wagner, C. McCormick, G. Young, & S. Ozonoff (2014). Autism Treatment in the First Year of Life: A Pilot Study of Infant Start, a Parent-Implemented Intervention for Symptomatic Infants Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders : 10.1007/s10803-014-2202-y