Studying Autism Spectrum Disorder in babies

Babies born in Australia have a 1 in 70 chance of being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) during their lifetime. This figure jumps to 1 in 5, if they have a brother, sister, or parent already diagnosed with the disorder.

Babies with ASD are more likely to have problems with ‘sticky attention’, a term used by researchers to describe the difficulty these babies experience in shifting their attention to things they need to be aware of, such as their mother’s face and voice.

By contrast, ‘joint attention’ is when a baby is able to share their focus with another individual, such as a parent. This is a key skill in infant development and usually emerges around 9 months of age, before being well-established by 18 months of age.

To better understand ASD, University of Queensland (UQ) researchers are trialling a new program that provides support to families with babies who have an increased chance of being diagnosed with ASD, due to having a brother, sister or a parent with ASD. The program is called Environmental enrichment for infants; parenting with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ENACT), and is the first early intervention program to be trialled in babies under six months old.

ENACT researchers will work with parents to develop suitable strategies to maintain responsive parent-child interactions, even if their baby shows signs of ‘sticky attention’. They’ll also provide support around parental mental health and the challenges of early parenthood.

ENACT is delivered via an online
e-learning course and one-on-one consultations with a specialist clinician via video conferencing.

The project’s aim is to determine the effectiveness of ENACT in supporting parents and enhancing child development.

Families will have a 50-50 chance of being allocated the ENACT program when they sign up for the trial. All participants will receive a paediatric report detailing their baby’s development at 12 months of age, providing them with valuable information to support them in accessing other early intervention programs in their baby’s second year of life.

We are looking for women who are pregnant with or have recently (in the past six weeks) given birth to an infant who has a sibling or a parent with an autism spectrum disorder.

For more information about the project or to sign up visit the ENACT website or contact the research team on or 07 3069 7547.

Professor Roslyn Boyd is Scientific Director of the Queensland Cerebral Palsy and Rehabilitation Research Centre (QCPRRC), an internationally recognised research group at the University of Queensland’s School of Medicine.