Researchers have found a way to reduce symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in infants and improve their overall condition.

They detail their findings in a study published in the Journal of Positive Behavioral Interventions, demonstrating to parents how by playing a child's preferred games and activities (instead of those widely enjoyed by other infants) could lessen ASD symptoms.

They observed the activities children preferred the most before teaching parents to use those games.

"We had them play with their infants for short periods, and then give them some kind of social reward," said Lynn Koegel, clinical director of the Koegel Autism Center at University of California Santa Barbara. "Over time, we conditioned the infants to enjoy all the activities that were presented by pairing the less desired activities with the highly desired ones."

This game changing method was described as a modified Pivotal Response Treatment (PVT), a practice founded at UCSB that encourages motivation, in this case by doing more activities the infant would enjoy.

Basically, it comes down to understanding what games help infants with ASD feel safe. For example, games such as hide and seek or peek-a-boo are popular among other infants, but they are distressing to infants with ASD, according to researchers.

"The idea is to get them more interested in people," she continued, "to focus on their socialization," Koegel added. "If they're avoiding people and avoiding interacting, that creates a whole host of other issues. They don't form friendships, and then they don't get the social feedback that comes from interacting with friends."

This is why the social reward, like a toy, was implemented to exercise the infant's ability to interact.

The PRT method involved teaching parents to implement the games into a child's routine in a one to three month time frame, for one hour every week until symptoms showed signs of improving. In the end, all the infants displayed normal responses to exercises. For preschoolers, current intervention options recommend long 30 to 40 hours of one-on-one interaction every week.

"Two of the three have no disabilities at all, and the third is very social," Koegel said. "The third does have a language delay, but that's more manageable than some of the other issues."

Researchers hope this intervention method could help parents and health care professionals tackle ASD early on.

"You can pretty reliably diagnose kids at 18 months, especially the more severe cases," said Koegel. "The mild cases might be a little harder, especially if the child has some verbal communication. There are a few measures — like the ones we used in our study — that can diagnose kids pre-language, even as young as six months. But ours was the first that worked with children under 12 months and found an effective intervention."

According to the Autism Society, one in 88 children born in the U.S. have ASD, and the disorder is regarded the fastest-growing developmental disability in the country. Overall, the condition costs families $60 billion annually, but it could be significantly reduced by two-thirds if diagnosed early on and the child is given proper interventions.