Avery C. Voos, first-year graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Koegel Autism Center, and colleagues said the study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure the impact of Pivotal Response Treatment. The therapy was pioneered at the UCSB by Lynn Koegel, clinical director of the Koegel Autism Center -- on both lower- and higher-functioning children with autism.
Comparing pre- and post-therapy data from the fMRI scans of 5-year-old subjects, the researchers saw marked -- and remarkable -- changes in how the children were processing the stimuli.
"After four months of treatment, they're starting to use brain regions that typically developing kids are using to process social stimuli," Voos said in a statement.
The therapy -- 8 to 10 hours each week for four months -- was bookended by fMRIs looking at predetermined regions of the brain.
"For instance, say a child wants to draw, and asks for a red crayon while she has her back to me. I say, 'I can't understand what you're asking if you're not looking at me.' Once she orients toward me, we provide a contingent response -- in this case, giving her the red crayon -- and ideally she begins to understand, 'Hey, me looking at you and asking for what I want gets me what I want," Voos said. "Ultimately, the social interaction becomes the reward on its own, which is the ultimate goal."
The findings were published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.