Parents of children with autism could see vast improvements in behavioral troubles, including severe tantrums, if they learn and use techniques to help their children cope with the challenges of the disorder, according to new research.
The study, which was published online Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is the largest randomized, multi-center study to analyze the impact of behavioral training.
The study included 180 families with children with autism 3 to 7 years old. Half of the kids’ parents were given one-on-one therapy, coaching and homework to help them learn behavior modification techniques.
Those techniques included such things as using timers to help children understand and respect rules and showing pictures to help them visualize positive behavior (such as using the bathroom properly).
The control group of parents received education only, which included information about autism without offering techniques to help manage undesirable behavior.
After the 24-week trial concluded, the researchers asked parents how things were going at home.
Disruptive behavior dropped by almost 48 percent in the training group and 32 percent in the education group, according to parent ratings.
An independent expert who evaluated the children (and didn’t know which group their parents were in) found that 70 percent of those in the behavior training group showed a positive response compared to 40 percent in the control group.
“These behavior problems are quite challenging to manage for parents,” said Luc Lecavalier, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center who led the research there. The site was one of six U.S. medical centers that participated in the study.
“They’re also quite costly to society because a lot of resources go to managing these children,” he said.
Kerri Doyaga of Bexley, Ohio went through the parent training — which included at least 11 in-person training sessions, telephone follow-ups and two home visits — and said it led to profound changes for her son Benjamin, who is now 7 and in first grade.
“The classes were life-changing for us, not only for Ben but for my other two children. They gave me great skills,” Doyaga said. “It helped me to understand what he was going through.”
Ben’s frustration and tantrums turned around when Doyaga and her husband, Justin, learned how to help their son with techniques including using pictures to guide him through such things as getting dressed, she said.
They used to miss birthday parties or scrap plans to go to dinner when Ben would become upset. Now, they can go as an entire family and Ben enjoys himself, too, she said.
“He is like a different kid. We go to parties. We go out to dinner. We do everything,” Kerri Doyaga said. “We don’t even think twice where before we would have had a conversation about not doing this or splitting the family.”
Lecavalier said he and the rest of the research team were thrilled to see such a significant response in the intervention group as well as interest in the benefits reported by the control group. While that group didn’t learn about behavioral interventions, basic support and education about autism seemed to make a significant difference.
“The idea here was to teach the parents how to intervene instead of relying on more costly interventions that would be implemented by professionals,” he said.
“We talk about how to praise and reinforce a behavior or ignore inappropriate behaviors … then we teach parents how to maintain the gains and involve different caregivers.”
Lecavalier said there’s promise in finding a way to disseminate the training program and find an affordable way to make it widely available.