An intervention for kids exhibiting signs of autism as young as 6 months is showing promise, researchers say, with most infants in a new study shedding their delays.

Of seven kids who received the therapy, only two later received a diagnosis on the spectrum. All of the children in the pilot study were flagged in infancy for displaying clear signs of the developmental disorder like limited eye contact, problems with socialization and repetitive behaviors, researchers said.

The study published online Tuesday in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders is among the first to look at autism intervention in infants.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

At present, autism cannot be reliably diagnosed in a child’s first year, though research has indicated that symptoms do appear in some children in infancy.

“Currently we have very, very effective treatments in toddlers and in preschoolers and we have many, many treatments for older children as well, so this study targets onset in a time which we don’t have a validated treatment,” said Sally Rogers of the University of California, Davis MIND Institute who led the study.

The approach called Infant Start is modeled after the Early Start Denver Model, an intervention that’s used with children over 18 months old who have autism.

For the study, researchers identified seven children ranging in age from 6 to 15 months with clear signs of autism. The kids and their parents participated in weekly one-hour therapy sessions for 12 weeks, where moms and dads were taught to use play and everyday activities ranging from diaper changes to feeding time to maximize engagement with their children. A series of follow-ups helped families to reinforce skills as needed.

The researchers also tracked the progress of four children who displayed similar delays, but whose families chose not to participate in the therapy.

Children who received the intervention displayed significantly more autism symptoms at 9 months than those who did not enroll in the therapy, but they were less affected at ages 18 months to 3 years, the study found.

Ultimately, two children who received the therapy were diagnosed with autism. Of the four kids who did not participate in Infant Start, three were diagnosed with autism and one with intellectual disability.

Paul Wang of Autism Speaks called the effort “pioneering” but urged caution given the small study size.

“This does not prove that this intervention works,” said Wang. “We don’t know for sure whether any of the children in this study or any other kids at this age will go on to have autism.”

Rogers said she’s hoping to conduct a larger, randomized trial which could determine with greater accuracy whether or not Infant Start is effective.