New study shows effectiveness of Social ABC’s intervention for children with confirmed or suspected autism

August 4, 2017

A unique autism intervention called the Social ABC’s has received national attention this week after a recently published study shows the program improves communication and development of children with diagnosed or suspected autism.

The study—published by Holland Bloorview and IWK Health Centre—enrolled 62 children aged 16 to 30 months with confirmed or suspected autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their primary caregivers. The treatment group received the Social ABC’s intervention immediately, while the control group waited six months to start. Children in the treatment group saw significant improvement, while the delayed group made little to no progress.

“What we found was that for the babies and families who received the Social ABC’s initially, if you followed the development over that first six-month period, we saw significant gains in the amount of time the babies spent looking at their primary caregiver…and an increased amount of time that the parents and babies were smiling together,” Dr. Jessica Brian, co-developer of the Socials ABC’s program, told the Canadian Press.

Researchers also found improvement in the children’s vocal abilities, and in their willingness to initiate social contact with caregivers.

Early intervention is known to support development of children with autism, yet long wait times for diagnosis and treatment often prevents this from happening. The Social ABC’s program started as a pilot research study in 2007 as a way to bridge this gap and start treatment for children three and under with diagnosed or suspected ASD. It is a parent-delivered program with guidance provided by a trained parent coach, and focuses on building positive connections with parents and their children. The program also encourages development of communication skills through interaction in everyday activities.

With support from Kids Brain Health Network, the Social ABC’s is now a clinical service offered through Hamilton Health Services. Since being made available to the public last year, the program already has many stories of success, one of which is Alexandra Foster’s. Her three-year-old son with ASD was essentially non-verbal before starting the Social ABC’s program. After completing the program, her son is now able to say many words and string together short sentences.

The clinical program is being funded for three years by the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services. The researchers plan to start a follow up study to train caregivers on how to attract their child’s attention prior to starting the Social ABC’s program, with the intention of making the program even more effective.

“Every community has different resources, but I think this program would be transferrable to any community,” says Dr. Brian. “Parent-mediated interventions are less resource-intensive and therefore less costly, and it provides an opportunity to work with kids who don’t have a formal diagnosis but it’s suspected they will go on and develop ASD.”