An innovative early intervention approach may be doing far more than helping children cope with autism. New research suggests that the behavior therapy is actually modifying brain development.

The intervention known as the Early Start Denver Model incorporates applied behavioral analysis, or ABA, with a play-based approach focused on relationship-building. It can be used with children as young as 12 months.

Previous research found that the technique leads to improvements in daily living skills, language and cognition. Now researchers say they’ve found that kids with autism who participate in the therapy are displaying more normal brain activity than those who don’t.

In a new study, researchers compared the experiences of 48 kids with autism ages 18 to 30 months, half of whom received the Early Start Denver Model and half of whom were given traditional community-based intervention.

After two years, children who participated in the Early Start Denver Model displayed better social skills and were more likely to initiate interactions, make eye contact and imitate others, researchers said.

What’s more, both groups of children were evaluated with electroencephalograms, or EEGs, while they looked at pictures of people’s faces or toys. While children with autism typically show far more interest in objects like toys rather than people, the majority of kids in the study who received the Early Start Denver Model showed greater brain activity when looking at the people’s faces. Their responses mirrored those of most typically developing children who were given the same test, researchers reported in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

Meanwhile, the opposite pattern was observed among kids with autism in the study who received more traditional intervention.

“This is the first case-controlled study of an intensive early intervention that demonstrates both improvement of social skills and normalized brain activity resulting from intensive early intervention therapy,” said Geraldine Dawson, the study’s lead author who serves as chief science officer at Autism Speaks and is also a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Researchers said the study highlights the importance of early intervention.

“The findings on improved behavioral outcomes and the ability to normalize brain activity associated with social activities has tremendous potential for children with ASD,” said Sally Rogers of the University of California, Davis MIND Institute who also worked on the study.

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