May 9, 2003 -- Using structured, interactive play to engage autistic children may help them learn valuable language and social skills. A new study shows an autism treatment program called the PLAY Project (Play and Language for Autistic Youngsters) can draw autistic kids out of their shells and allow them to live a more normal life.
The results of a one-year study of the new autism treatment were presented this week at the Annual Pediatric Societies in Seattle.
Researchers tested the PLAY Project with 41 autistic children -- average age 3 1/2 -- and their families. Through monthly home visits, consultants trained the parents how to use play and language-based interactions with their children. The parents were encouraged to spend 20 hours per week in structured one-on-one interaction with their children.
"For instance, in a child who likes to open and close doors, the parents first enjoy their child's joy at watching the door open and close, and begin to engage with them as they open and close the door, saying 'open' and 'close'," says researcher Rick Solomon, MD, chief of behavioral and developmental pediatrics at the University of Michigan Health System, in a news release. "You keep extending this and stretching it out, and soon they understand when you say 'open' and 'close.' And eventually, they gain language from that."
"They begin to control the environment around them by using their language, and before you know it, you have two-way communication," says Solomon.
Soloman says the approach is based on emerging research that shows the young brains can absorb new knowledge and develop new skills even if their initial development was stunted by autism. Between the ages of 18 months and 6 years, he says children's brains are most malleable, which makes early detection and treatment of autism critical.
Researchers videotaped the parents and children at the beginning of the study and a year later to monitor the children's progress. At the end of the study, independent evaluators that didn't know how much time the parents had spent with the children assessed the children's severity of autism and parental satisfaction with the autism treatment.
The study found the play-based autism treatment allowed about half of the children (46%) to make good to excellent progress in reducing autism severity and another third (32%) made fair progress.
Researchers say the child's degree of progress was closely linked with the amount of time the parents spent engaging the child in interactive play. The children whose parents spent 15 or more hours per week following the play guidelines tended to show the most progress. Sixty-two percent of these children made good to excellent progress compared with only 20% of the children whose parents spent less than 10 hours per week that made good progress.
The vast majority (87%) of the parents that participated in the PLAY Project say they were very satisfied with the program services.
Solomon says the results show that this play-based autism treatment was also inexpensive, costing about $2,500 per child per year.