While it’s clear that early intervention improves outcomes for kids with autism, choosing the right treatment for a particular child remains guesswork, but that could soon change.

Researchers say that they’ve identified brain activity patterns that can successfully determine whether young kids with autism will respond well to at least one treatment approach.

The findings published this week in the journal Translational Psychiatry could eventually lead to scientific methods that clinicians could use to pinpoint the best therapy for individual children, researchers say.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

“I have been working with autistic kids for 20 years and find it impossible to predict who will respond to evidence-based treatments we use,” said Pamela Ventola, an assistant professor at the Yale Child Study Center and a senior author of the study. “But these neuroimaging biomarkers may help us quickly identify individuals for whom the costly treatments will not work so we can start a more appropriate therapy.”

The study looked at Pivotal Response Treatment, one of a handful of evidence-based interventions for those with autism. The approach, which is derived from applied behavior analysis, emphasizes natural reinforcement in a play-based and child-initiated environment.

Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to scan the brains of 20 children with autism before and after they participated in Pivotal Response Treatment. They were able to analyze activity in areas of the brain responsible for processing social and emotional information to determine with near perfect accuracy which children would respond to the therapy approach, the study found.

Pivotal Response Treatment is costly and time-intensive, researchers say, and is effective in about 60 percent of those on the spectrum so quickly assessing whether or not a child is likely to benefit would allow kids to maximize their treatment potential at the earliest age possible.

“Parents want their children to receive the best treatment during this period, but it is not always clear how much a given treatment plan would benefit the children,” said Daniel Yang of George Washington University and the Children’s National Health System and a lead author of the study. “Although more research is needed, the current research provides an important first step toward establishing objective biomarkers that can accurately predict treatment outcome in young children with autism.”