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San Antonio researchers to treat babies at-risk for autism

San Antonio researchers to treat babies at-risk for autism

UTSA and community health partners are creating an early assessment and treatment program for infants and toddlers at risk of autism.

(Sept. 12, 2018) – UTSA, in collaboration with The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio and the Autism Treatment Center, have been awarded a two-year, $1,251,063 grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to develop an innovative, infant and toddler autism treatment program called Project PLAAY (Parent-Led Autism Treatment for At-Risk Young Infants and Toddlers).

This project will identify infants and toddlers at high-risk for developing autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and create a radical, innovative parent-assisted treatment program for infants as young as 6 months.

“The goal of this project is to identify autism as early as possible and treat symptoms before they progress,” said principal investigator, Leslie Neely, assistant professor of educational psychology at UTSA. “I often speak with parents who recognize symptoms in their second or third child and are looking for an early and effective treatment for their infants ‘at risk’ of autism. We aim to develop that treatment.”

To identify potential infants for this project, co-Principal Investigator, Dr. Melissa Svoboda of The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, will employ a new electroencephalographic (EEG) technique to isolate biomarkers correlated with later autism diagnosis. The cutting-edge EEG analytical approach, developed by key collaborator Dr. William Bosl of Harvard University and Boston Children’s Hospital, will be used to assess brain wave data and make predictions regarding autism diagnosis. In addition, Dr. Bosl will employ the EEG technology in a novel approach to identify changes in the developmental trajectory after the treatment program.

“If we have a way to identify these children early and monitor their development, we can make sure children get the intensive interventions they need to reach their maximum developmental potential,” said Dr. Svoboda, assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine.

The PLAAY research team is looking to recruit at least 75 infants and toddlers from San Antonio and surrounding areas. Infants will be seen at the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, and toddlers will be seen at the Autism Treatment Center. Both groups will go through a series of assessments including neurological examination and neuropsychological testing led by Dr. Svoboda and her partner, Andrew Martinez of the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio.

“Repeated and regular assessments will allow us to monitor for any changes associated with this novel treatment approach. It will also help us see whether this type of treatment can decrease or delay a diagnosis of Autism,” said Martinez, assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine.

Infants and toddlers, who meet the research criteria, will undergo a novel treatment developed by Neely and key collaborators, Amarie Carnett of UTSA and Jessica Graber of the Autism Treatment Center. The early intervention will focus on addressing key diagnostic criteria like behavior, social communication, and motor skills. Treatment will also include parents and caregivers participating in sessions to learn to use the therapeutic interventions at home.

“Research shows parents of children with developmental disabilities are often stressed and can feel isolated, so we are providing the resources and coaching they need to have positive interactions that are critical for their child’s development and to decrease the level of stress on the family unit,” said Graber.

“Involving caregivers is very important. If we can teach caregivers how to use these skills at home, they will hopefully practice with their child throughout the day. This is an approach that is not often considered in other treatments,” said Carnett, assistant professor at UTSA.

The team working on this project are all members of the San Antonio Applied Behavior Analysis (SAABA) research consortium and project. They have been collaborating on autism research, community outreach, and providing intensive therapy for over 3 years. SAABA’s mission is to improve outcomes for individuals with autism, intellectual, and developmental disabilities in school, home, and community settings. The SAABA Project was made possible through funding from the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (DARS) Autism Program and a grant from the John L. Santikos Charitable Foundation Fund of the San Antonio Area Foundation.

As a learning and research enterprise, UTSA fosters innovation and creative discovery by channeling its expertise into tackling critical societal issues of today and tomorrow. The UTSA College of Education and Human Development produces educators, administrators, counselors and health professionals with a global perspective of the educational, psychological, social and health needs of communities.

UTSA is ranked among the nation’s top five young universities, according to Times Higher Education.

Kara Soria

Learn more about UTSA College of Education and Human Development.

Learn more about San Antonio Applied Behavior Analysis (SAABA) Project

Learn more about The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio.

Learn more about Autism Treatment Center – San Antonio.

Project PLAAY can be reached at or 210-704-3589.

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University of Texas at San Antonio receives ‘transformational’ $40M gift

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