A recent article on CNN.com has revealed that when autism is diagnosed at an early age and age-appropriate therapy is subsequently administered, the resultant intervention can be effective in raising IQ levels and improving language skills and behavior. The findings, published in the journal Pediatrics, shows for the first time that early intervention can effectively treat autism.

Since 2007 it has been conventional wisdom to screen 18 month old babies for autism. The question has been what to do next if it is in fact identified in a child. Now doctors feel that they may have an answer to that question.

In the study, doctors examined 48 children diagnosed with autism between the ages of 1 1/2 and 2 1/2. Half of the group was enrolled in standard community based therapies, while the other half took part in an intervention program called the Early Start Denver Model, or ESDM.

All of the children showed improvement after two years, but the children in the ESDM group displayed even greater improvements in IQ. Scores for motor skills and comprehension were also higher in the ESDM group. In fact, it was found that many of them had essentially caught up with typical children their age.

The ESDM method is different from standard therapies in that it takes place in the more familiar and comfortable setting of their homes. Children are engaged in more natural activities like playing and sitting on the floor, thereby developing a more fun, pleasant and enjoyable relationship with the therapist. Furthermore, due to the nature of the exercises, they can take place virtually anywhere.

The developers of the ESDM method also say that it can easily be learned by parents who can then implement the exercises at anytime, not just during specific therapy sessions. Furthermore, children in the ESDM group underwent only 15 hours per week of therapy, versus the standard recommended time of 40 per week. This represents a significant financial impact on families, where it has been estimated that autism therapy can cost as much as $3 million over the course of a lifetime.

Autism is a complex neurological condition whose causes are still not completely understood, though genetics and environmental triggers are believed to play a role. It typically appears within the first three years of life and affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. There is no known cure, but early intervention has been found to be effective in lessening disruptive behavior while teaching skills that will lead to greater independence.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the prevalence of autism has increased to 1 in 150 children, and almost 1 in 94 boys. If you have any questions or concerns about autism, speak with your pediatrician. For more information, check out the website for the Autism Society and Autism Speaks.