Parents of children with autism  Spectrum who were guided by therapists in how to communicate better with their children and practised the approach daily saw a reduction in the severity of autism symptoms, say U.K. researchers.In the parent-mediated social communication therapy or PACT trial, parents of children aged two to four at the severe end of the autism spectrum worked with a therapist who helped the parents tune into their child’s subtle communication, such as hand gestures or moving a toy.

As part of the experiment, a therapist would monitor interactions between the parent and child, watching and waiting for the child to communicate, and then help to reinforce the communication, such as with a smile.”This isn’t a cure,” the study’s lead author, Prof. Jonathan Green of the University of Manchester and Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital, said in an interview. The latest study is a followup analysis of the children about six years after the treatment ended, when the children were about 10.5 years old on average.

Devin Walters was not very verbal when he was first identified as being on the autism spectrum, his mother recalls. (CBC)autism severity was measured using an international standard measure that combines social communication and restricted and repetitive behaviour symptoms into an overall score.Communication between each child and a parent was videotaped and then evaluated as part of the study.The researchers say their results are the first to show long-term improvement in symptoms after a randomized controlled trial of early intervention in autism spectrum disorder, which affects about one per cent of children and young people.

Powerful for parents

The six years of followup is exciting, said psychologist Dr. Jessica Brian of Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto, who was not involved in the study. She’s investigating a similar model to help children with autism to develop their communication skills.It was assumed that helping young children make small gains would build over time and assist their development.

Parents encouraged

The findings are empowering, said Sue Walters of Aurora, Ont., who has two sons on the autism spectrum. She and her husband attended classes to help their eldest, Devin, to communicate better.”It resonated with me,” Walters said of the study’s results. “Parents of autistic children know that starting very early and being able to get that serious groundwork, the really rudimentary stuff, is what’s going to make a change for our kids.”Future research could help identify the key components of the treatment and its underlying mechanism, Sigafoos said.


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