Editor's Note: New cutting-edge research is helping to unlock the mysteries of the child's brain and could give autistic children a whole different future. Watch part three of our special series, Inside the Child's Mind, tomorrow on American Morning.
By Kiran Chetry, CNN
As a baby, Jake Exkorn was everything his parents hoped for – happy and healthy.
“He hit all of the developmental milestones. He walked, he talked, he played,” says Jake’s mother Karen Exkorn.
But at 17 months, Karen says the light began to fade from Jake's face.
“At first he stopped responding to his name. And then he stopped playing. And then by his second birthday, he stopped speaking entirely.”
Karen worried it may be a hearing problem, or a speech delay.
“I never expected to hear the words, your child has autism. … It was completely devastating. It meant that there was no hope for my son. And yet I was determined to help my son in any way that I could. I knew that I wanted treatment for Jake that had science behind it. And a lot of treatments don't. But the one that had the most science behind it was a treatment called ABA.”
ABA – applied behavior analysis – is an intensive approach that uses repetition and rewards to teach autistic children the things that come naturally to most kids.
“We wanted to teach Jake to respond to his name. So we'd say, ‘Jake,’ and we'd take an M&M and we'd hold it up just between our eyes.”
Day after day, 40 hours a week, they plugged away – hoping to help Jake relearn what autism had taken away.
“Going into this there were no guarantees. Nobody ever mentioned the word recovery to us so that wasn't our goal ever.”
And there continue to be no guarantees, but for the first time a new study shows that early intervention therapy can improve language skills and behavior, and raise IQ – giving hope to parents of children with autism.
“What we know is that if children receive early intensive behavioral intervention, some of the children do lose their diagnosis,” says Geraldine Dawson.
Dawson is the chief scientist for the advocacy group "Autism Speaks." She helped design the study and says symptoms of autism may appear as early as eight months.
“So the most important thing is to be alert for those symptoms and then get into intervention right away.”
After a year of ABA therapy, Jake showed progress. Then, at age four – a turning point. When Karen took him for ice cream, without prompting, Jake told the man what flavor he wanted: “Nilla.”
“The man had no idea that this was this defining moment in my life, but this was huge. This was huge. And this marked the beginning of spontaneous language for Jake.”
What soon followed was an even bigger milestone. At Jake's 4 year check-up, Karen was told her son no longer had symptoms of autism. The doctor said Jake had recovered.
“Hearing her say that blew me away in the same way as when I heard her say the diagnosis.”
Today Jake is a thriving 13-year-old. He plays basketball and football, and is every bit the typical teenage boy.
“I like to hang out with my friends. … I don't love to study even though sometimes I have to. … I would describe myself as outgoing, athletic and nice,” says Jake.
A dramatic transformation for a family who once thought they lost their little boy to autism.
“I don't think about it too much but when I do it is kinda crazy. But, my mom and dad put in a lot of effort into it and so did I and it paid off.”
A payoff that, with more research, may be within reach for more children with autism. Researchers still don't know why some children recover so fully like Jake, and others don't. But most agree that early intervention is the best hope for a more positive outcome.