With intervention, adults with autism can see significant behavioral improvements, according to new research suggesting that the window of opportunity for gains may be longer than previously thought.

Researchers found that using an evidenced-based intervention with young adults on the spectrum led not only to observed advances, but also changes in how the participants’ brains functioned.

The results are meaningful because most studies look at the effects of treatment on children, according to those behind the findings published online in the journal Autism Research.

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“Many individuals with autism spend months and years in different forms of trainings with limited measurable gains,” said Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman of the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas and a principal investigator for the study. “We find it promising that this intervention extended the potential to positively impact brain systems and social cognition into adulthood.”

For the study, 17 young adults with high-functioning autism participated in a virtual reality intervention program for 10 hours over five weeks where they used avatars on a computer to interact with a clinician in lifelike social scenarios. During the sessions, individuals would receive real-time feedback as they engaged in a job interview, date or other age-appropriate situation, all of which was not scripted.

Before and after participating in the intervention, researchers took brain scans of each of the adults with autism. They found that after the sessions were complete, individuals showed an increased brain response to social stimuli and better emotion recognition.

“Brain change is a big deal in adults with autism. Many people implicitly believe that brain changes are unlikely for adults with autism, which might affect how they interact with those adults. This study challenges that very notion and has profound implications in the way people would view, interact and treat adults with autism,” said Daniel Yang of the George Washington University Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute who worked on the study.

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