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Parent-led therapy helps improve communication skills and behaviour of children with autism, finds study

Training parents in therapy techniques to communicate and interact with their child has been shown to help reduce the severity of autism symptoms in the long term, according to a study published in the medical journal The Lancet.

The Pre-school Autism Communication Trial (PACT), led by staff at the University of Manchester, King’s College London and Newcastle University is the first to identify a long-term effect of an early intervention for autism.

Through watching videos of themselves interacting with their child and receiving feedback from therapists, parents were able to enhance their awareness and response to their child’s unusual patterns of communication; they became better able to understand their child and communicate back in a focused way.

Parents took part in 12 therapy sessions over six months, followed by monthly support sessions for the next six months. In addition, parents agreed to do 20 to 30 minutes per day of planned communication and play activities with the child.

The researchers found that children who had received the intervention aged two to four had less severe overall symptoms six years later, with improved social communication and reduced repetitive behaviours, although no changes were seen in other areas such as language or anxiety.

However, they added that difficulties remained and additional ongoing support will usually be needed as the children get older.

Professor Jonathan Green, of The University of Manchester and Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital, who led the study, said: “The advantage of this approach over a direct therapist-child intervention is that it has potential to affect the everyday life of the child. Our findings are encouraging, as they represent an improvement in the core symptoms of autism previously thought very resistant to change.

“This is not a ‘cure’, in the sense that the children who demonstrated improvements will still show remaining symptoms to a variable extent, but it does suggest that working with parents to interact with their children in this way can lead to improvements in symptoms over the long term.”

Click here for more information about the PACT study.

Click here to read the Lancet report.