MONDAY, Oct. 3 (HealthDay News) -- Children with an autism spectrum disorder appear to benefit from early, intensive therapy to improve their social and communication skills, according to a new study from the University of Missouri.

"It's important for children with autism to begin treatment as soon as possible," Micah Mazurek, assistant professor in the School of Health Professions and the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, said in a university news release. "The more intense or comprehensive the therapy, the better it is in terms of helping children improve social and communication skills."

People with an autism spectrum disorder have problems understanding, interacting and relating to others. For the study, researchers measured 15 social-communication skills of more than 1,000 autistic children and teenagers, including facial expressions, gestures, language comprehension, sharing enjoyment and appropriate social responses.

Although 95 percent of the kids showed improvement in these skills over time, the study found that those who received behavioral, speech and occupational therapy had better results.

Moreover, the children who received more intensive treatment at a younger age showed the most improvement in their social-communication abilities, the researchers said. Those with higher nonverbal IQs had the best response to therapy, they found.

"With regard to social-communicative symptom severity, our study reveals that it is not IQ alone that contributes to improvements over time," said Mazurek. "Instead, having a higher IQ may allow children to make greater gains in various types of treatments." The results also indicate a need to develop alternative treatment approaches for children with intellectual impairments, Mazurek added.

The study, recently released online in advance of publication in an upcoming print issue of Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, concluded that targeted, intensive treatments may be most successful in improving specific skills among autistic children.

More information

The U.S. National Institutes of Health provides more information on autism.