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Experimental autism therapy ‘reduces core symptoms in children’

Autism therapy trial that helped parents communicate with their children reports ‘encouraging’ results.
child plays

An experimental autism therapy that supports parents interaction with their children has reduced core symptoms of the condition, say researchers.

The trial, involving daily 20 to 30-minute sessions of planned communication and play activities, showed benefits that lasted six years after the treatment ended. It is the first time long-term effects of such an early intervention have been demonstrated.

Long-term outcomes

A follow-up study was designed to look at long-term outcomes from the Pre-school Autism Communication Trial (Pact), which involved 152 children with autism aged two to four. In the new analysis, 121 or the original participants were re-assessed after six years. Of these, 59 had received the Pact therapy.

Symptoms in the treated children were found to be less severe, with improvements in social communication and a reduction in repetitive

An experimental autism therapy that supports parents’ interaction with their children has reduced core symptoms of the condition, say researchers.


Planned play sessions were found to have long-term benefits  Photo: iStock

The trial, involving daily 20 to 30-minute sessions of planned communication and play activities, showed benefits that lasted six years after the treatment ended. It is the first time long-term effects of such an early intervention have been demonstrated.

Long-term outcomes

A follow-up study was designed to look at long-term outcomes from the Pre-school Autism Communication Trial (Pact), which involved 152 children with autism aged two to four. In the new analysis, 121 or the original participants were re-assessed after six years. Of these, 59 had received the Pact therapy.

Symptoms in the treated children were found to be less severe, with improvements in social communication and a reduction in repetitive behaviour.

Although no changes were seen in other areas such as language, anxiety and challenging conduct, experts regarded the results as highly significant.

Parent-child communication

Study leader Professor Jonathan Green, from the University of Manchester, said: ‘This type of early intervention is distinctive in being designed to work with parents to help improve parent-child communication at home.

‘The advantage of this approach over a direct therapist-child intervention is that it has potential to affect the everyday life of the child.

‘Our findings are encouraging, as they represent an improvement in the core symptoms of autism previously thought very resistant to change.

Therapeutic interaction

‘This is not a ‘cure’, in the sense that the children who demonstrated improvements will still show symptoms to a variable extent, but it does suggest that working with parents to interact with their children in this way can lead to improvements in symptoms over the long-term.’

Core symptoms of autism, which can vary in severity, include impaired ability to communicate and engage socially, and obsessive or repetitive behaviour.

The Pact intervention focused on parents who were invited to watch videos of themselves interacting with their children and receiving feedback from therapists.

Heightened awareness

This had the effect of enhancing parents’ awareness of their child’s unusual patterns of communication and helped them to respond appropriately.

Parents took part in 12 therapy sessions over six months, followed by regular support over another six months.

In addition, parents agreed to spend 20-30 minutes each day engaged in planned communication and play activities with their children.

Reduced symptoms

Autism severity was given a score of 1 to 10 according to a standard international method of combining social communication and behaviour symptoms.

The findings, published in The Lancet, showed a 17% reduction in the proportion of children from the intervention group with severe symptoms.

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