Infant therapy shows promise in reducing autism symptoms for life

BOSTON — It is an intriguing question: Can intensive therapy for infants as young as a few weeks old help reduce autism symptoms for life?

Boston-area researchers are working with infants to see how something as simple as "cooing" may be life-changing.

"It's just that reciprocal social interaction and that's one of the ways that babies engage. So whether it's eye contact, smiling or cooing, all of those are really critical to establishing those social interactions that are the foundation of social development," said Becky MacDonald, senior program director with the New England Center for Children.

MacDonald and her colleagues are trying to replicate a study conducted by researchers with the Wisconsin Early Autism Project. It involved 14 at-risk infants all under the age of six months.

Two years later, only one of those children is symptomatic of autism.

"These children you know can now talk, they can play, they can interact with their families," MacDonald said.

She and her colleagues say their own research saw encouraging results at least through the middle school year if children begin treatment before their second birthday.

Alicia Grunes of Lexington is trying the therapy with her 7-month-old daughter Quinn.

Quinn is considered "at risk" for autism. Her 3-year-old brother, Owen has autism, older sister Cora does not.

Grunes hopes the extra therapy now will lead to an easier path for Quinn.

“Having a child with autism you know they just struggle a lot, and as a mom you never want your kids to have to struggle with anything,” said Grunes.

MacDonald has been working with Quinn on a weekly basis since she came home from the hospital: watching for red flags and providing intervention including simple, play-based, back-and-forth exercises like peekaboo and even cooing.

MacDonald tells Boston 25 News Anchor Heather Hegedus she’s encouraged Quinn is not showing any warning signs right now.

"You believe the trajectory of autism can be changed - maybe not reversed, but at least changed. You don't know why it works, but you know that it is working?” Hegedus asked.

“I do know that it's working and we can really change what kids look like by doing what we're doing,” MacDonald said.

MacDonald is still looking for more at-risk infants to participate in her study. Click here for more information.

If you’d like to learn more about the exploding autism rates here in Massachusetts and research like this happening right in our backyard, watch Boston 25 News In-Depth: Unlocking the autism puzzle. The 30-minute special airs Friday, December 14 at 10:30 p.m.