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Training parents to approach autism differently

Study suggests changing parents' response can change child's behavior

A parent's behavior can help an autistic child, according to a recent study.
A parent's behavior can help an autistic child, according to a recent study.

COLUMBUS, Ohio – When his son Preston was diagnosed at age 5 with autism spectrum disorder, Brett Sheraw said he and his wife were actually relieved to finally have some answers. But he admitted, there were times they had no idea how to handle their son's behavior in certain situations.

"I used to always be the type that would be like, 'No, we need to do this. We need to do that.' And it would make it worse," said Sheraw.

Autism spectrum disorder now affects one in every 68 children born in the United States. Most treatments focus primarily on the child, but a new study suggests doctors may want to pay closer attention to the parents.

"I think we empowered parents by teaching them how to interact with their child in a more efficient way," said Luc Lecavalier, a psychologist and researcher at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center's Nisonger Center.

In the largest randomized, multicenter study of its kind, Lecavalier and colleagues took a different approach to autism therapy -- using experts to train the parents, instead of the kids.

In one-on-one sessions, parents learned how to identify triggers that lead to problems, how to use visual aids to better communicate and which behaviors to ignore and which they should try to change.

After 24 weeks, 70 percent of children showed dramatic improvements in behavior. That's the same response rate as the most effective drugs on the market. What's more, the improvements lasted.

"At the six month follow-up, 80 percent of those children continued to be what we call 'positive clinical responders,'" said Lecavalier. "So, in other words, they were being rated as much improved or very much improved."

The average patient in the study was 4-and-a-half years old, which is important because many families say they would like to try behavioral therapy at an earlier age before exposing their children to medications and the side effects they can carry.

Doctors say if they can teach these behavioral intervention techniques on a broader scale, it could give parents new hope and patients more options.

"Sometimes you need something just for the parent," said Sheraw. "Because I think a lot of times, the autism spectrum is harder on the parent than the child."

To learn more about the study, click here.