Pivotal Response Training for ASDLearning to respond to social situations is one of the major struggles for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A new study from Yale University suggests that pivotal response training (PRT) can improve behavior and enhance activity in social-related brain regions for children with ASD. Pivotal response training is a therapy system that helps children with ASD learn to communicate. Practitioners of PRT create play-like activities based on a child’s interests. The study demonstrates that PRT could play an important role in developing social skills for children with ASD.

The researchers evaluated 40 children with ASD and 20 typically developing children. All of the children had average IQ scores. The typically developing children and half of the children with ASD participated in four months of PRT. Before and after the study, the researchers showed the children pictures of 24 faces to determine which parts of the face they focused on. The researchers measured their gaze using eye tracking equipment. They also evaluated some of the children’s brain patterns using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Six of the typically developing children and 16 of the children with ASD looked at pictures of faces and pictures of houses while in the fMRI.

After the treatment, the ASD group’s response to the images changed. The children with ASD, when looking at faces, focused more on the mouth after the training. Their level of fixation on the eyes did not change. The fMRI results for the typically developing group showed activity in response to images of faces. Brain areas related to social stimuli, like the medial prefrontal cortex, and areas related to emotional processing, like the temporal pole, were the most active. In contrast, the fMRI results for the children with ASD revealed activity in the posterior brain areas, like the visual cortex, in response to the images of houses, not the images of faces. These findings suggest that people with ASD may have hyperactive brain responses to objects, rather than social stimuli.

The researchers emphasize that these results are preliminary and that more research is needed to confirm the effectiveness of PRT as a social intervention for autism spectrum disorder.

This research was presented at the 2014 Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

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