Antonio Hardan and his colleagues at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucie Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford conducted a study where they found that training parents in groups about basic autism therapy was a beneficial method in helping children improve their language skills. Dr. Harden, the study’s lead author and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences says, “We’re teaching parents to become more than parents.”
The 12-week study included fifty-three children with autism, ages 2 through 6, who all had language delays, and their parents. Focusing specifically on language building, parents were trained how to use systemic rewards for the child making an effort to talk about it. For example, if a child shows that they want a ball, the parent responds with, “Do you want the ball? Say ‘ball.'” Even if the child only manages to make out a “ba” the parent then rewards the child with the ball in order to encourage their functional language use. Though this sort of therapy is similar to applied behavioral analysis or other behavioral therapies, it is a lot more flexible and parents are able to focus in on their child’s interests.
The therapy used in the study, called pivotal response training, was introduced to half of the parents in the study, while the other half were exposed to basic information about autism. Researchers measured the children’s verbal skills at the beginning of the study, 6 weeks in, and again at 12 weeks at the end of the study. They found that 84% of parents who received the pivotal response training were able to use it correctly and their children did show an increase in the number of things they said as well as their functional use of words when compared to the children in the control group.
Dr. Grace Gengoux, co-author of the study and a psychologist specializing in autism treatment explains, “There are two benefits: the child can make progress, and the parents leave the treatment program better equipped to facilitate the child’s development over the course of their daily routines.” With the rise in autism diagnoses, many parents are finding it difficult to receive the services they need and to the extent that they need it. This group training allows for parents to continue therapy based practices in the home. Dr. Harden explains that, “parents can create opportunities for this treatment to work at the dinner table, in the park, in the car, while they’re out for a walk.”
Researchers also found that when training parents in a group, they feel more empowered to help their children since they are surrounded by people with similar experiences and can connect on many levels. The bottom line is, when parents work together to provide the resources that their child needs, they can really make a difference in their lives.
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