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Autism therapy raises hope

Perth researchers want to test a groundbreaking autism therapy that could prevent some children from developing the condition.

The Telethon Kids Institute wants to carry out large-scale research on hundreds of infants, after a small British study found that targeting early signs of autism in the first 12 months of life could reduce the chances of children having the condition later.

The technique involves videotaping parents with their children and then showing them how to keep their baby's attention and eye contact.

It is one of the first therapies to show promise in preventing rather than treating the learning and behavioural disorder that affects one in 100 people.

Unlike traditional autism therapy which is used in children three or four years old, the early intervention is aimed at babies.

The British study, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, was based on 54 families with babies at high risk of autism because an elder sibling had the condition.

Babies whose parents participated in video-based therapy over several months developed better attention and social behaviours.

University of Manchester professor Jonathan Green said that while parent-based therapy was used in preschoolers already diagnosed with autism, it seemed to have little impact on actual autism symptoms.

"Our findings suggest that targeting the earliest risk markers of autism, such as lack of attention or reduced social interest or engagement, during the first year of life, may lessen the development of these symptoms later on," Professor Green said.

Telethon Kids Institute head of autism research Andrew Whitehouse said it was small but exciting research and Perth had the best facilities to test children in a more definitive study.

"When I started in the autism field 15 years ago, the idea that we may be able to reduce the risk of an infant developing autism by starting preventative therapy in infancy seemed like science fiction," he said. "These results are preliminary but they take us closer to a position of science fact.

"These findings show just how responsive the brain can be to intervention in the first two years of life."