Training for parents can improve children’s autism

Communication training for parents can improve the symptoms of severe autism, according to a long-term study published in the Lancet.

The therapy, which involves parents watching films of themselves playing with their child while a therapist gives them communication advice, aims to improve the social skills of primarily non-verbal autistic children by training the parents.

The results of the trial are encouraging because there is no drug treatment for autism, and families of those with the condition often use ineffective, unproven therapies.

During the treatment, parents are recorded with their child when they are sitting and playing alone. The parents are then shown clips of missed opportunities to engage with their child, which, if taken, would eventually encourage the child to be more communicative.

At the beginning of the therapy’s six-year trial, 55 per cent of the children involved were severely autistic. By the end of the trial period, this figure was 46 per cent. This reverses the typical trend of symptoms getting worse with age.

The study’s lead author, Jonathan Green, told the BBC: ’This is not a “cure”, in the sense that the children who demonstrated improvements will still show remaining symptoms. It suggests that what the parents have been able to embed into the family has sustained even after the end of the therapy which is really encouraging.’

Instant analysis
Headlines about parental impact on autism can be hugely controversial, as it is easy to see blame in the suggestion that parenting can improve autism. The authors of this study are quick to point out that this is not the case. Instead they are suggesting that, by training parents to pick up on and use certain cues in their interactions with their autistic children, improvements can be made.

This is a randomised controlled trial which demonstrates some interesting results over a lengthy period of time, and while it must be remembered that this is by no means a miracle cure (or even a cure), the percentage of children with severe autism was reduced over time (rather than increased, as would be the natural history) in the treatment group.
MB
Research score: 4/5