NECC Infant Sibling Project Seeks to Improve Early Identification and Treatment of Autism in Infants

The New England Center for Children® (NECC®), a global leader in autism education and research for children with autism, announced the Infant Sibling Project, a research study to identify early signs of autism in infant siblings of children with autism and to develop interventional treatments.

Led by Dr. Becky MacDonald, the Infant Sibling Project seeks to replicate and expand research by Graupner and Sallows (2017) of the Wisconsin Early Autism Project that identified early signs of autism in infants. While existing research on children with autism indicate that symptoms first appear after 6 months, some indicators may be detectable much earlier. The Infant Sibling Project will further identify and study these indicators in the first months of life. Currently, clinicians will not diagnose autism prior to a child’s first birthday, missing a potential opportunity for early intervention.

“Our hope is the Infant Sibling Project will reveal that earlier age and greater intensity of treatment will result in best outcomes for infants and children with autism,” said Dr. MacDonald. “If our findings resemble those of Graupner and Sallows (2017), we will have a robust set of data to add to the field of autism. By initiating treatment as soon as deficits are detected, under 6 months of age, we may increase the likelihood that these babies will not be diagnosed with autism by age 3.”

About the Infant Sibling Project: Identification, Intervention, Therapy
The Infant Sibling Project includes examination of potential early behavioral markers that may predict a later diagnosis of autism. These pilot data combined with the outcomes from Graupner and Sallows (2017) will be the first empirical evaluation of very early onset autism.

The Infant Sibling Project will entail weekly developmental screenings to detect and monitor the emergence of any symptoms at a micro-level. This procedure is unique in the field as most researchers evaluating symptomatology do not assess children at weekly intervals.

In NECC’s most recent work to date, one child has been identified as symptomatic based on these behavioral deficit markers beginning at 8 weeks of age. Once a baby is identified as symptomatic, treatment begins immediately, meaning that for some children, treatment begins within the first few months of life. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapists work 1:1 with each symptomatic baby for 15-20 hours per week using a treatment that includes a combination of ABA and the Carolina Curriculum for Infants.

Parents will also be trained to implement the Babies in Responsive Play (BIRP) curriculum to teach targeted skills in the child’s daily activities using the principles of ABA.
In their current treatment work, Dr. MacDonald and her staff have seen increases in performance on targeted skills once therapy is initiated. This allows for the baby to start to “catch up” to typical performance and safeguards against losing skills over time.

Because this therapy is unique to children under 6 months of age, NECC will develop a manual that prescribes activities to teach autism-specific social skills to infants while remaining sensitive to the developmental needs of the infants. Using activities framed in the context of play and social interaction, NECC can provide many opportunities for learning in the natural environment. NECC’s goal is to work collaboratively with Graupner and Sallows (2017) to create this manual for other practitioners and parents.

Seeking Further Infant Sibling Participants
The NECC study currently has 18 infant siblings of children with autism ranging in age from newborn to 8 months old. In order to determine whether these behavioral deficits are indeed related to a future diagnosis of ASD we will need a larger sample size. Dr. MacDonald continues to seek study participants. Babies must be under 6 months of age and be a sibling of a child diagnosed with autism. Please contact NECC at 508-481-1015 or email Dr. MacDonald at bmacdonald@necc.org.