A short series of group classes can help parents to learn how to use a validated autism therapy, says researchers at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford and the Stanford University School of Medicine. The study was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry on Oct. 27, 2014. The therapy, known as pivotal response training, was designed to help children with autism improve their language skills.
The 12-week study was the first controlled, randomized trial which tested if group classes are an effective way to train parents of autistic kids in autism therapy. The parents in the study were able to help their children learn from every day interactions. The therapy is meant to supplement autism therapies administered by professionals and not to replace them.
“We’re teaching parents to become more than parents,” said the study’s lead author, Antonio Hardan, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and director of the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Clinic. “What we’re most excited about is that parents are able to learn this intervention and implement it with their kids.” After the training program, parents are better equipped to facilitate the language development of their autistic children during their daily routines, and their children make progress.
“The ways that parents instinctually interact with children to guide language development may not work for a child with autism, which can frustrate parents,” said Grace Gengoux, PhD, study co-author and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “Other studies have shown that learning this treatment reduces parents’ stress and improves their happiness. Parents benefit from knowing how to help their children learn.”
In pivotal response training, a parent identifies an object that their child wants, encourages the child to talk about it, and rewards the child.. For example, if a child reaches for a ball, the parents respond by saying: “Do you want the ball?” and adding: “Say ‘ball.’” “The child might say ‘ba,’ and you reward him by giving him the ball,” Hardan said. “Parents can create opportunities for this treatment to work at the dinner table, in the park, in the car, while they’re out for a walk.”
There were 53 children with autism and their parents involved in the study. Children were between the ages of two to six and had language delays. One group of parents attended pivotal response training while a control group attended a program that provided basic information about autism. Researchers measured the children’s verbal skills at the beginning of the study, at six weeks, and at 12 weeks. Parents who were taught pivotal response training were videotaped by ensure that they were using the therapy correctly.
After the study, researchers determined that 84 percent of the parents were accurate when implementing the treatment. Their children showed greater gains than the control group’s children in language skills such as their use of words and the number of things they said. Children with the best visual problem-solving skills showed the most improvement. The parents also benefited from being able to interact with other parents of autistic children.
“Parents really do feel more empowered when they’re in a group setting,” said study co-author Kari Berquist, PhD, a clinical instructor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences and an autism clinician at the hospital. “They’re talking, connecting, sharing their experiences. It gives them a sense of community.”