Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or autism, has a broad scope and affects a diagnosed child differently. For some, autism affects their ability to interact socially or show emotion, while for others, it develops a desire for repetitive behaviors. There is no cure for autism, but studies have proven that early intervention greatly improves the child’s chances to address some of the developmental issues associated with the condition.
Researchers from the U.K. studied the outcome of a 2010 study called Preschool Autism Communication Trial, which involves 152 2- to 4-year-old children with autism. One group of kids was given standard treatment, while another group was randomly assigned to a year of parent-led intervention, where they were filmed interacting with their parents at home as they work to improve their communication. This latter group's videos were viewed by a therapist who would discuss what she observed with the parents, providing feedback to help the parents better understand how they can communicate with their children more effectively, as well as pick up on their child's cues for interaction.
The study, which was published in the Lancet, found that the children in this group showed improvement in their ability to communicate and were less likely to exhibit repetitive behavior. While the researchers noted that the kids' language skills did not improve nor did they show reduced anxiety, they turned their attention to a new major differentiating factor: the larger role of the parents in early intervention programs.
"When we change the parental interactive behavior...that leads to child initiation with the parent, and that change in child initiation with the parent is related to the child changing symptoms," Jonathan Green, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Manchester, who co-led the trial tells CNN.
Tony Charman, study author and chair in clinical child psychology at King’s College London, told Time, "This intervention is giving them tools to improve their interactions and see the communication developing with their children, and that’s quite empowering for parents."
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Even in the follow-up trial, the long-term impact of the parent-led early intervention proved to have sustained the kids' improvement in communication. "We think the results are encouraging and even possibly somewhat surprising," Charman said. "This follow up took place six years after a one-year treatment had ended, and an awful lot of things would’ve happened to these children in the meantime."
Green believes that the parent-led intervention will pave the way for a round-the-clock therapeutic space for child with autism in their own homes. "Our findings are encouraging, as they represent an improvement in the core symptoms of autism previously thought to be very resistant to change,” he said in a statement. However, he stressed that it is still not a cure. What it does offer is a "sustained decrease in severity" of the condition.
The results of the study are likely to fuel ongoing debate about the benefits of applied behavior analysis (ABA), the longest-standing form of therapy for children with autism. It is far more intensive with the long hours per week of one-on-one therapy that involves healthcare professionals and the child’s parents.
Compared to ABA, the parent-led early intervention method is definitely more family- and schedule-friendly, but Green says there is still so much work to be done.
"We want to look at the mechanism for this sustained effect,” he said, adding that they would like to explore autism’s levels of severity. His team hopes to take the new intervention approach into schools and train parents so they can work together to help the children, and maybe even "get the child functioning in their everyday world."