Training parents how to effectively interact with their severely autistic children has for the first time shown to improve the behaviors of the kids over the long term. The researchers found that the novel form of therapy was able to help moderate the behavior of children who might usually grow up to be severely autistic, unresponsive, or not able to communicate.
The therapy is based on a fairly simple concept. Rather than getting the child to interact with a trained therapist, the researchers decided to see if training the parents instead would make a difference. First of all, the parents were filmed interacting and playing with their autistic children, before then sitting down with a trained professional to look over how they did.
This allowed the parents and the therapist to review easily missed moments where the child may have been indicating that they wanted to play or communicate, which can be hard to pick up on in real time. This meant that the parents could then be taught the skills of how to spot these behaviors, and then the correct response. For example, giving the child the appropriate time to communicate is essential, while at the same time not questioning the child as this can add undue pressure on them.
“This type of early intervention is distinctive in being designed to work with parents to help improve parent-child communication at home,” explained Professor Jonathan Green, who led the study published in The Lancet. “The advantage of this approach over a direct therapist-child intervention is that it has potential to affect the everyday life of the child. Our findings are encouraging, as they represent an improvement in the core symptoms of autism previously thought very resistant to change.”
The results even surprised the researchers who conducted the study. It involved 152 families and was started not long after the children were diagnosed with autism at around the age of three. Usually, the symptoms of autism in children are expected to get worse as they get older, and in the families who were given regular therapy, this is exactly what was seen. While at the start of the trial 50 percent of the children were classed as severely autistic, by the end of the six years this had increased to 63 percent.
But in the families where the parents were given the new form of therapy, while 55 percent of children were diagnosed as being severely autistic at the beginning, after six years this figure had dropped to 46 percent. “This is not a ‘cure’, in the sense that the children who demonstrated improvements will still show remaining symptoms to a variable extent,” said Dr Green. “But it does suggest that working with parents to interact with their children in this way can lead to improvements in symptoms over the long-term.”
The results so far look promising and could lead to a new form of treatment to help not only the children suffering from the condition, but also the many thousands of parents, who can now go on to communicate to other people, such as teachers, how best to interact with their child.