A first-of-its-kind autism prevention study will test whether high-risk babies are helped by extra eye contact and attention from parents.
University of Washington autism researchers are hoping to recruit 200 Seattle-area babies who have an older sibling diagnosed with autism for the $11.3 million study. Autism affects as many as one in every 150 newborns in the United States, but the risk is as high as one in 20 for infants who have a sibling with autism.
All of the babies recruited for the study will be monitored by specialists and evaluated at the ages of 6, 12 and 24 months. But half the mothers in the study will be coached in a unique intervention that trains them to detect subtle communication cues from their babies. The mothers will be taught how to take advantage of periods when their children are reaching out, engaging infants in eye contact and communicating with them in a lilting voice that captures attention and may make it easier for kids to learn language.
“We want parents to really be attuned when a child reaches for a toy and looks at the parent,’’ said Annette Estes, associate director of the University of Washington Autism Center
and research assistant professor of psychiatry and behavior science. “We want parents to be really aware when their child is allowing them into their world and to know what to do at that point.’’
The idea is that coos, lilting speech, eye contact and other interaction will reinforce the development of the babies’ social interaction, and hopefully prevent or reduce the deficits that can later occur in children who develop autism. Behavioral and speech therapists will also be assigned to babies who start to develop signs of autism to determine if early intervention can lessen or eliminate symptoms.
“With autism, we think there may be some disruptions in the social communication system,’’ said Dr. Estes. “These very, very early subtle episodes of social interaction we think may be necessary for the social brain to develop in a typical way.’’
If the study detects a difference in autism risk in the intervention group, the research will shed light on brain development in all babies, not just children with autism, noted Dr. Estes. But for parents who already have a child with autism, the study is particularly important. Right now, those parents have no options, and can only wait and worry about the fate of a second child.
“Parents are having another child and they are very rightfully concerned about their child’s development,’’ said Dr. Estes. “There really aren’t any programs that have been shown to help parents through that time.’’