Currently, children are not diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) until they are at least 2 or 3 years old, but a Michigan State University study suggests that ASD symptoms reveal themselves as early as 12 months. Researchers believe the benefits of early diagnosis could potentially lead to preventing autism.

The study, which is published in this month’s Current Directions in Psychological Science, discovered that children who were diagnosed with autism when they were older were less likely to show what researchers call “joint attention behaviors,” such as playing with a toy while paying attention to another person. They were also less likely to imitate others, which author Brooke Ingersoll said could be the reason children with ASD have difficulty with language as they get older.

“If there’s some early disruption in these mechanisms that are involved in social learning, the children have many fewer opportunities to learn about their environment,” Ingersoll said.

Psychological scientists are now trying to develop ways to work with toddlers who show early signs of autism as a way to enhance their social learning capabilities and potentially prevent the development of ASD all together. One technique, called reciprocal imitation training, involves the therapist playing with a child and imitating what the child is doing, and then having the child imitate the therapist.

“We try to teach them, ‘Imitating other people is this great social thing’,” Ingersoll said. They also encourage parents to practice these techniques at home, she said.

“I think there’s a lot of hope that if we can figure out the right behaviors early enough, and intervene early enough, we may be able to prevent the development of autism,” Ingersoll said.

Source: Education Week

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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