Parenting intervention using video feedback may reduce the severity of autism

The earliest autism intervention study in the world has suggested that a parenting intervention using video feedback for families with babies at family risk of autism may reduce the severity of emerging signs of autism (University of Manchester, 2017). 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 reduced social interest or difficulties with attention and disengagement, may be present around the end of a child’s first year of life.

This latest study was led by Professor Jonathan Green at the University of Manchester and Royal Manchester Children’s hospital, in collaboration with Professor Mark Johnson’s MRC-funded team at Birkbeck, University of London and teams at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience. The study aimed to reduce these early symptoms and lower the likelihood of the child developing difficulties associated with autism later on in childhood.

The intervention, delivered by teams at the University of Manchester and Guys Hospital, London, and assessed by teams at Birkbeck and Kings College London, was an adapted version of the already established Video Interaction for Promoting Positive Parenting Programme (iBASIS-VIPP).

Of the fifty four families who took part in the study, twenty eight were randomly allocated to receive 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. These infants received the intervention for five months, from the age of nine months to fourteen months. Assessments were made from the end of treatment at age fifteen months, at twenty seven months and then at thirty nine months of age.

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 long-term effect on reducing the severity of autism symptoms.

Professor Jonathan Green, who led the study, said “What is novel about this study is how early we began the intervention. We know that similar kinds of intervention later in childhood can show long term effects; here we have shown that beginning intervention of this kind in the first year of life can produce important improvements for the babies over the medium term in development, continuing after the therapy finishes. This is a very promising finding that provides an excellent basis for future larger scale trials using the intervention in very early development. If this intervention continues to show improvements in such larger studies, then the method would have real potential use for families at the point of early concern, or if their child is genetically at risk of developing autism.”

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.“

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