Doctors and maternal and child health nurses ‘need to become more skilled’ at having conversations with parents about the risks of autism faced by their children – irrespective of how young the child or mild their presenting symptoms – says leading autism researcher Cheryl Dissanayake.
‘We also need to educate parents about what to expect from their developing child during their early months and years, so that parents are forewarned about typical early social communicative development.’
Professor Dissanayake is Director of La Trobe University’s Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, a core partner in Australia’s new $100 million national Co-operative Research Centre for Living with Autism Spectrum Disorders which aims to improve the lives of people with autism.
She says there has been a 25-fold increase in the number of autism spectrum disorders diagnosed over the past 30 years, affecting about a million Australians – and at least one in every 100 children.
Early intervention to target precursors of autism
Writing in the on-line journal The Conversation she says there is growing evidence that interventions in the first years of life, while brain plasticity is greatest, can maximise children’s developmental outcomes.
‘A 2011 study from the United States, for instance, found that early, intensive behavioural intervention can “normalise” the brain – though this study needs to be replicated to confirm the results,’ says Professor Dissanayke.
‘Despite the increased likelihood of positive developmental outcomes from early intervention, many professionals are wary of raising concerns with parents of very young children, claiming they “aren’t ready” to hear that something is amiss with their child’s development.
‘And for their part, parents often worry about “labelling” their child from a young age. Together, these hesitations are barriers to better outcomes for both the child and family,’ she says.
‘If behavioural intervention can be accessed as soon as there are early warning signs – before the onset of the “full-blown” syndrome – it’s possible to target the developmental precursors of ASDs. This improves the chances of the child moving toward a more typical developmental trajectory.
‘A baby who doesn’t respond when his name is called, or shows no signs of imitating others’ behaviours such as clapping and waving, and instead seems to be on their own agenda, is a candidate for early intervention. This child needs to be brought back into the social loop so that he can begin to learn from others,’ says Professor Dissanayake .