A pre-emptive intervention for babies showing early signs of autism appears successful.

A new study has found that babies who receive the intervention – which helps parents better identify and respond to their baby’s communication cues – were able to say and understand significantly more words than a control group when followed up six months later.

“Although there was no difference on some autism measures, the measures we did find, in language and communication, were quite clear,” said Professor Andrew Whitehouse, of the Telethon Kids Institute.

“Parents who received the intervention reported that their toddlers improved in understanding an average of 37 more words and saying an average of 15 more words than the control group.

“This is an important milestone in our research as it’s the closest we’ve come yet to proving the long-held theory that early intervention for babies on a suspected pathway to autism will be more beneficial than waiting until after diagnosis, which typically doesn’t happen until around three years of age.

“Rather than waiting to the point of diagnosis, this study indicates that we should identify children as early as we can and provide intervention at that point.”

The research team enrolled more than 100 babies aged 9-14 months in a randomised controlled trial to investigate the impacts of the video-based intervention across a range of autism measures.

All 103 babies had shown early behavioural signs of autism. Half received the intervention, while a control group received current best practice treatment.

Parents were filmed interacting with their babies, with researchers later providing feedback to help them recognise communication cues from their baby which might be otherwise difficult to interpret. Parents were then guided on how to respond in ways that would increase infant interaction.

“As parents, we respond to babies in a certain way,” Professor Whitehouse said.

“When a baby doesn’t respond in a typical way, we change our interaction patterns accordingly: we tend to either become very ‘hands off’, or we try to tell or show the baby what to do. These are very normal human responses.

“Using this structured therapy program, we teach parents to sit back and watch their babies – to be a detective of their babies – so they can understand the way they’re interacting and then respond accordingly.

“We are striving to help parents to get more in sync with how their baby is communicating with them. When parents understand how their baby is communicating, and then respond accordingly, it creates a very rich social environment around them. This is gold in terms of helping boost language development.”

The team followed up with both groups six months later, finding no significant difference in most early autism behaviours between the intervention group and the control group, but a significant improvement in language abilities.

“This progress alone is significant for families with children who may be developing atypically, and who previously had not been able to access therapies,” Professor Whitehouse said.

“I often think that the most magic words families can ever hear are ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ – and if you can help improve a child’s language development after receiving an intervention, then that can be genuinely life-changing.”