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Study Shows that Classes Enable Parents to Deliver Autism Therapy

Kids with autism benefit when parents take classes on Pivotal Response Training; goal to supplement not replace professional therapy
October 31, 2014

Parents learned to effectively use an autism therapy with their children by taking a short series of classes, according to a new study funded by Autism Speaks. The goal of the research is to find ways to supplement, not replace, professional autism therapy services.

The report, by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine, appears this week in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Importantly, the study is the first randomized, controlled trial to test whether group classes are effective in training parents to use an autism therapy. Specifically, the parents learned strategies from Pivotal Response Training (PRT), an autism therapy program that earlier research has shown effective when delivered by trained professionals.

It builds on the encouraging findings of a related study, also funded by Autism Speaks, showing that parents can learn and deliver a therapy program that reduces autism symptoms in babies who show warning signs for the disorder. (See “Small Study Shows Promise for Parent-led Intervention for Babies.”

Twelve classes and lots of homework
The researchers enrolled 53 children with autism and their parents in the study. The children ranged in age from 2 to 6. All had language delays. The parents were randomly assigned to one of two groups: The experimental group attended 12 weekly classes on PRT. Eight of the classes involved a psychologist skilled in the technique teaching groups of four to six parents. Four classes were one-on-one with the psychologist watching a parent use the technique with his or her child.

The control group attended a 12-week program offering basic information about autism.

To use PRT to build language skills, parents identify something the child wants and rewards the child for trying to talk about it. For instance, if the child reaches for a ball, the parent says, "Do you want the ball? Say 'ball'." If the child makes an effort – for instance, saying “ba” – the parent gives him the ball. Parents are encouraged to create opportunities to have these interactions throughout the day – for instance, while dressing and at meals.

The researchers measured the children's verbal skills at the start of the study, at six weeks and again at twelve weeks. At six and twelve weeks, they also assessed whether the parents who learned the technique were using it correctly.

At the end of the study, 84 percent of parents who received the PRT instruction were using the therapy correctly. As a group, their children showed greater gains in language skills — both in the number of words they used and in their ability to use words effectively — than did the children in the control group.

“It’s increasingly important to look at the benefits of parent-implemented therapy,” comments Lucia Murillo, Autism Speaks assistant director for education research. “This creates opportunity for intervention in a child’s natural environment during regular routines throughout the day.”

Dr. Murillo also notes that the parents in the study had relatively high education levels (at least some college). “It would be great to see this study expanded to caregivers in a wider socioeconomic group.”