Science Says New Parent-Led Treatment Could Reduce Symptoms Of Autism

by Meredith Bland
Image via Shutterstock

Children showed improvement when parents were taught to interpret their cues in Autism study

Parents of children with autism have a new source of hope after researchers from the University of Manchester, King’s College London, and Newcastle University found that teaching parents how to interpret their child’s cues had positive and long-lasting effects.

Autism affects 1 in 68 children in the United States. It has no known cause and, until now, no scientifically proven treatment. It is a devastating diagnosis for parents, who may be relieved to have a diagnosis but who are then left at the edge of a cliff with no clear direction. There are dozens of therapies and treatments out there that are said to cure autism — everything from a diet-based approach to the anti-vaccination movement — and while there are many parents who will swear by different treatments, none of them have been proven effective. This study, however, according to NBC News, is “…one of the first such approaches to be shown to actually work.” And according to the study itself, it’s “the first to show long-term symptom reduction.”

Are you jumping up and down? Because we’re jumping up and down.

The study, published yesterday in the Lancet Medical Journal , looked at the Preschool Autism Communication Trial (PACT) which studied 152 British children ages 2-4. In the treatment, parents were videotaped playing and interacting with their children. They then watched those videos with a therapist who coached them on how to read their children’s varied attempts at communication. After 12 sessions over six months, those parents were then asked to work on communicating with their child through play for 20-30 minutes a day and were provided with monthly therapy check-ins.

The results were tremendous. Awesome. Mind-bending. Super exciting. And dare we say, rad?

Children whose parents received coaching were better able to communicate and the severity of their symptoms was reduced when they were assessed not long after treatment. In addition, when researchers followed up with them more than six years later, they found that not only did the children continue to have improved communication with their parents, but their symptoms remained less severe than those of children whose parents did not receive coaching through PACT. Here’s how CNN described the results: “46% of the children whose parents had received training were considered to have severe symptoms, but 63% of children whose parents had received standard care were considered to have severe symptoms. At the start of the trial, the two groups had been almost equal.”

Other studies looking at communication and cues have been done in the past with therapists and other professionals, but this study differs in that it was completely parent-led, and that is what researchers think made the difference. When parents are taught how to communicate more easily with their children, the treatment ends up taking place all the time because it is constantly practiced in the home environment. Jonathan Green, who is a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Manchester and co-led the trial, put it this way: “When we change the parental interactive behavior … that leads to child initiation with the parent, and that change in child initiation with the parent is related to the child changing symptoms.”

This study makes us want to yell from the rooftops something positive and possibly involving a few swear words of joy. Not only do we finally have a treatment that has a proven effect on children with autism, but that effect has been shown to last for years. And best of all, the treatment comes from the parents themselves. That’s empowering, and beautiful, and a reason to cheer.