Helping children with autism

14 November, 2012

Research Fellow Dr Giacomo Vivanti and his team of researchers at the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (OTARC) at La Trobe University have successfully profiled children with autism in order to predict how well they will respond to a particular form of developmental therapy.

Dr Cheryl Dissanayake, Director of OTARC, said Dr Vivanti’s research, published in the Journal of Autism and Development Disorders, is the first of its kind to profile children in order to predict treatment responses.

"This research is important because it is the first step towards being able to identify which intervention programs are best suited to specific children," Dr Dissanayake said.

The autism intervention model being studied by Dr Vivanti and his team is the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), which is being implemented at the Victorian Autism Specific Early Learning and Care Centre: The Margot Prior Wing of the La Trobe Community Children’s Centre since 2010.

"There is little doubt that all children in the Margot Prior Wing benefit from the ESDM, but what we’re trying to understand is why some children make more gains than others," Dr Dissanayake said.

"Children are making gains across four cognitive areas after one year of therapy. And some children in our sample are moving from a severe autism diagnosis to a less severe diagnosis."

However, not all children improve to the same degree under the ESDM, and Dr Vivanti said the challenge is to better understand how to match children to the programs that are best suited to their specific needs.

"We are working on the issue of 'what works for whom and why?'" Dr Vivanti said.

The paper details the initial results of the OTARC research, and uses the profiling model developed by Dr Vivanti to predict the responses of children at the Margot Prior Wing to the ESDM therapy.

The paper shows Dr Vivanti’s profiling model has been highly successful in predicting treatment outcomes for children undergoing the ESDM intervention, although the sample size was relatively small, with 21 children participating in the study.

The next step in the research, Dr Dissanayake said, is to assess whether the predictors of treatment success used by Dr Vivanti will work equally well when used in other types of early intervention programs.

"We really want to get to the stage where we can say, 'this group of children will do better in program A, whereas these other children will do better in program B so that we can prospectively match treatments to individual children'," Dr Dissanayake said.