May 20, 2010 - Training parents to adapt communication to their child's impairments doesn't affect the child's autism but does help the parent-child relationship, U.K. researchers find.
The rigorous study is drawing praise from experts, as relatively few studies of autism treatment have been so carefully designed. Nevertheless, it had been hoped that the training technique, begun soon after autism diagnosis, would make children's autism less severe.
The idea was that training parents to respond to their child's specific communication needs would jump-start the child's social development and improve the child's general communication skills.
University of Manchester researcher Jonathan Green and colleagues trained 77 families in the so-called PACT (Preschool Autism Communication Trial) intervention: six months of twice weekly two-hour sessions with daily 30-minute home practice. Children ranged in age from 2 years to just under 5 years.
Parents said the training greatly improved their relationships with their autistic children and they saw signs of improvement in their kids. But 13 months later, objective assessments showed that the children did not become less severely autistic than children in 75 families given standard care.
"We cannot recommend the addition of this intervention to treatment as usual for the purpose of reduction in autism symptoms," Green and colleagues conclude. "The intervention does however significantly alter parent-child ... communication in ways that are associated with subsequent positive child outcomes ... and are likely also to be positive for the parents themselves."
Rebecca Landa, PhD, director of the Kennedy Krieger Institute's Center for Autism & Related Disorders, says the PACT training is more intensive than many autism therapies offered in the U.S.
Landa stresses the importance of improving parent-child social communication. But she says this isn't enough.
"A major finding from this study is that parent training conducted in a clinical setting is insufficient to support generalization of social, communication, and language skills in young children with autism," Landa tells WebMD via email.
The good news, she says, is that studies under way at Kennedy Krieger show that when this kind of parent training is coordinated and integrated with skills being taught in a classroom, kids do learn to generalize their newly-acquired skills to situations outside the home.
The Green study appears in the May 21 online edition of The Lancet.