Autism—What is the latest research telling us?... Failure to orient to social stimuli represents one of the earliest and most basic impairments in autism. Early intervention that address the basic social impairments is the most effective tool we have to provide optimum outcomes in children with autism.

Statistical information from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicates that the rate of autism is 1 in 68 children (1 in 42 for boys). More children will be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) this year than with AIDS, diabetes, and cancer combined. ASD is a group of heterogeneous neurodevelopmental disorders that severely compromise the development of social relatedness, reciprocity, social communication, joint attention, and learning.

In recent years, more and more autism research has focused on infants and toddlers. We now believe that autism begins at birth with altered social engagement—a difference in the way a child "tunes in" and interacts with the people around him. This altered social engagement goes on to manifest as deficits in social communication and restricted interests and behaviors. These core characteristics of autism cause a cascading and pervasive effect. Dr. Ami Klin, director of the Marcus Autism Center and one of the nation's leading researchers, describes this process by saying, "Autism creates autism."

Failure to orient to social stimuli represents one of the earliest and most basic social impairments in autism. From birth, typical babies are naturally drawn to people. They would rather look at people than things; they would rather hear human voices than environmental sounds. But it is different for our babies with autism. Brain studies have found that while typical infants and young children show increased brain activity when viewing people rather than objects, children with autism show the opposite pattern—they preferred objects. Children with autism do not seem to experience as much natural reward in social interactions as other children.

Early intervention that is designed to enhance social attention and engagement can change brain function in toddlers with autism. Research shows that this type of early intervention can make a significant difference in a child’s level of function by school age.

Autism-specific early interventions, like the Pathways Parent Training Program, address the core deficits of autism which will change the way a child tunes in and interacts with the social environment. This change may alter the child’s brain development toward a more typical learning and developmental trajectory and diminish autism symptoms. Because early intervention may activate typical processing mechanisms due to the plasticity of a child’s brain before age three, the capacity for learning and change is great. Autism specific early intervention has been shown to significantly increase social attention and engagement, thereby enhancing the development of cognitive and language skills of children with autism. Early intervention is the most effective tool we have to change the way these children learn—improving both brain and behavioral development.

While all components of our program are based on current research, the program itself has also been studied. Two studies have been published in peer reviewed journals and a third large scale study is now underway.

The first study was supported by a grant from the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services, in conjunction with the Texas Council on Autism & PDD, and the Texas Autism Research and Resource Center. It was published in Autism—International Journal of Research and Practice. The study found Pathways Parent Training Program model to be effective for developing the early foundational social communication skills of eye contact, social engagement, and verbal reciprocity in toddlers enrolled in an IDEA part C program. Social validity showed a high level of satisfaction as parents perceived the intervention as beneficial, easy to learn, and easy to incorporate into daily life.

A case study on the Pathways Parent Training Program authored by Dr. Pamela Rollins from the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, University of Texas at Dallas, was published in Topics in Language Disorders. In the study, Dr. Rollins describes the early development of shared attention and intention that typical children develop before words—the very skills our babies with autism lack. Without these early social skills many children with autism may go on to develop words, but not true social understanding and communication. These children may be able to name and request but not be able to effectively engage and interact with the people in their world.

Rather than focusing on the development of words, the Pathways Parent Training Program targets the precursor social cognitive skills of face-to-face reciprocal social interaction and eye contact. Results of this case study showed a marked increase in social engagement and vocal/verbal reciprocity—words within social interactions and social games significantly increased. In addition, eye-tracking data revealed that eye contact increased dramatically. At this time a two-year, large scale study is being conducted at the University of Texas at Dallas/Caller Autism Treatment Research Center. The proposed project has three goals—two research goals and one developmental goal:

Goal One: To examine the effectiveness of the Pathways Parent Training Program on remediating the core features of ASD (i.e., eye contact, social engagement and social communication).

Goal Two: To identify the contribution of the Pathways Parent Training Program's innovative protocol and the resulting gains in eye contact on the development of social and communication outcomes.

Goal Three: To use the data collected in this study to develop an algorithm that best predicts which individual children will be successful.