It is estimated that as many as 70 million people worldwide have autism. Because of the pervasiveness of the condition, much effort has recently gone into what makes effective treatment, especially surrounding the issue of communication. Around one-quarter of children with autism are non- or minimally verbal, which is a primary treatment concern for parents of autistic children.
A paper published in Frontiers in Neuroscience analyzed research from over 60 different intervention studies to compile information about which interventions have been effective. The research comes out of the University of Birmingham and is led by Dr. Joe McCleery. The purpose of this study was to review existing interventions in order to identify commonalities in successful interventions.
The key findings were centered around motor behaviors and mirroring. The issues that children with autism exhibit in both motor behaviors and mirroring had a negative impact around speech development, likely because both play key roles in the development of language skills. The team found that children with autism show less mirroring brain activity, particularly when it came to strangers. They found very little evidence that sign language training is effective, which is also likely linked to the problems in motor behavior and mirroring. However, picture exchange training was shown to be effective. This intervention involves children learning to ask for things by exchanging pictures. It is possible that this works well because it does not require complex motor skills or mirroring. Finally, play-based approaches that incorporate explicit teaching strategies have also been shown to be effective.
Some newer studies are focusing on motor skills as well as speech and language intervention. These studies are yielding some hopeful preliminary results and they are utilizing new understanding of the interaction between motor behaviors and speech development.
Research lead Dr. McCleery stated, “We feel that the field is approaching a turning point, with potentially dramatic breakthroughs to come in both our understanding of communication difficulties in people with autism, and the potential ways we can intervene to make a real difference for those children who are having difficulties learning to speak.”
UK autism research charity Autistica supported this study.