A new book co-authored by Trinity College Assistant Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Molly Helt is designed to make early intervention treatment even earlier than ever for infants at risk of developing autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
The Activity Kit for Babies and Toddlers at Risk: How to Use Everyday Routines to Build Social and Communication Skills (The Guilford Press, 2016) shows families – in easy-to-understand terms – how to support their child’s development by incorporating scientific principles into their day-to-day lives, even before receiving an official ASD diagnosis.
“I’m the parent of a child with autism, and parents are told to give their children up to 40 hours of intervention a week,” Helt said of her own experience with her oldest child. “So what I found myself doing was adapting a lot of applied behavioral analysis programs to daily routines like bathing, changing, feeding, or going to the playground.”
Concern for her second child led Helt to look into early intervention techniques for children who are considered “at risk.” She knew that children who have an older sibling with autism have a roughly 20 percent chance of developing autism, but she could not find much information about parenting at-risk children. “Autism is something we can’t diagnose until 18 months at the earliest, and I couldn’t just sit around for 18 months and do nothing,” Helt said.
In reality, a child may be significantly older than 18 months before any treatment begins, Helt said. “The average wait time once a parent identifies that they have a child with a problem, to get an appointment [for diagnosis], is nine months nationally,” Helt said. “Here in Connecticut, once you have a diagnosis, you then have to wait an additional three months on average for early intervention to start – and Connecticut is better than a lot of places in the United States. These are crucial months in which a child’s brain is the most plastic and developing the most quickly.”
Inspired both by her own children and by her professional experiences working with parents who are frustrated by having to wait so long for diagnosis and treatment, Helt researched typical development and ASD treatment programs. She and her co-authors adapted those concepts for families with young children who may have ASD – or who may be at risk – to use anytime, anyplace. “It’s basically all about getting autism therapy into your day-to-day life,” Helt said.
The book’s introduction, says, in part, “From the moment your child wakes up to the time she goes to bed, you have many opportunities to build language, social skills, imitation, and pretend play. This book contains games to play while you dress your child, rhymes and songs to use during mealtimes and chores, ways to enrich development and learning during play and errands, and more.”
“I hope this book serves as a ‘how-to’ on how to do early intervention yourself,” Helt said. “We know from autism research that autistic children will do things for their parents they won’t do for anyone else. I really want to inspire parents, to say, ‘You can do this.’ Even if you have a job, you have to eat with your kid and bathe them, and so you can be part of this plan. A lot of these activities are embedded in games, and we want it to be fun and manageable. It doesn’t have to be something that takes away from living your life.”
Helt plans to test this program as part of her ongoing research at Trinity. “In the field of autism, we’ve made very little progress in genetics and underlying biological mechanics of autism over the last 20 years,” she said. “However, we’ve made huge strides in our ability to diagnose earlier, and outcomes have drastically improved. Where we’re making the gains is in early identification and early intervention, and so that’s where I want to go with my research, and that’s where I see the real way to make progress.”
The book’s co-authors are Helt’s mentor Deborah Fein, Ph.D., a Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Connecticut; Lynn Brennan, BCBA-D, a board-certified applied behavior analyst based in Massachusetts who has worked with children with autism spectrum disorders for more than 20 years; and Marianne Barton, Ph.D., a clinical professor and director of clinical training in the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Connecticut, where she is also director of the Psychological Services Clinic.
Helt holds a dual Ph.D. in clinical psychology and developmental psychology. She currently teaches developmental psychopathology, developmental neuroscience, clinical psychology, and a senior seminar called “The Social Self” at Trinity College. The Activity Kit for Babies and Toddlers at Risk is her first book. The publisher is already translating the book into Korean and Turkish and has plans to translate it into more languages.
Written by Andrew J. Concatelli