NEWS | June 15, 2012

New study explores novel autism treatments for very young children


Researchers at the UC Davis MIND Institute and the University of Washington, Seattle, have received Autism Speaks grants to extend their groundbreaking research into novel, high-impact treatments for very young children.

Sally J. Rogers, UC Davis professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, has received a $765,937 three-year grant as part of Autism Speaks' "Move the Needle" initiative, which seeks to lower the age of autism diagnosis and expand the delivery of high-quality interventions.

Sally Rogers © UC Regents
Sally Rogers

Rogers is conducting the work in collaboration with Annette Estes, research associate professor of speech and hearing science at the Center for Human Development and Disability at the University of Washington, Seattle, who received a similar award.

The funding supports a new study focused on enhancing the effects of parent-implemented interventions for the very youngest children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), toddlers aged 12-30 months.

The study, which began earlier this year with the enrollment of participants, is being conducted in parallel at both sites. Building on a previous Autism Speaks study these scientists carried out last fall, it is developing and testing smart phone technology, new approaches to child assessment, and increased support for families, among other innovations, in order to determine the effects of parent-implemented interventions embedded into the families' everyday activities.

"Our goal is to increase children's learning rates and to facilitate their development of language and social skills," says Rogers. "This project seeks to start as early as possible in making sure that families have all the resources they need to ameliorate the disabilities associated with autism."

"We know that parent-implemented interventions are a part of the most successful interventions for early ASD," Rogers said. "But we have much to learn about the impact that parent interventions can have on their own. This study's proposed intervention methods have great relevance to autism in low-resource communities across the world, where there may be no one but parents available to help their children."

Called the Parent and Toddlers with ASD at Home, or PATH, project, its approaches are designed to help parents increase social and communicative learning opportunities for their children within highly enjoyable natural play and care-giving activities.

Innovations include multi-modal materials to accommodate different adult learning styles, parent self-monitoring using novel internet technologies to enhance data collection, and use of video for parents to show researchers the new learning opportunities they're providing to their children.

The project holds special relevance for parents of very young children with ASD, who often are informed that their children are diagnosed with ASD without simultaneously receiving effective treatments. Providing them with validated interventions that they can embed within their daily routines provides them with immediate access to effective intervention and to activities that they themselves can carry out.

The project holds special relevance for the children, as well, who at this age are in the midst of the most rapid learning period of their lives. By ensuring many learning opportunities day in and day out, their progress should be enhanced, reflecting a lifetime of improved functioning, contribution, and quality of life.

Founded in 2005, Autism Speaks is the nation's largest autism science and advocacy organization, dedicated to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism, increasing awareness of ASD, and advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families.

At the UC Davis MIND Institute, world-renowned scientists engage in research to find improved treatments as well as the causes and cures for autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, fragile X syndrome, Tourette syndrome and other neurodevelopmental disorders. Advances in neuroscience, molecular biology, genetics, pharmacology and behavioral sciences are making inroads into a better understanding of brain function. The UC Davis MIND Institute draws from these and other disciplines to conduct collaborative, multidisciplinary research. For more information, visit