Early intervention shows promising long-term reduction in severity of autism symptoms
An intervention which helps parents communicate with their child has been shown to reduce the severity of autism symptoms for at least six years after the end of treatment, according to a new study led by King’s College London, the University of Manchester, and Newcastle University.
The research, published in The Lancet, and funded by the Medical Research Council, is the first to identify a long-term effect of an early intervention for autism, and is consistent with NICE guidance supporting the use of early intervention.
Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disorder that affects about 1 in 100 people which can have a profound effect on children’s social development into adulthood.
The type of early intervention used in this study focuses specifically on working with parents. Through watching videos of themselves interacting with their child and receiving feedback from therapists, parents are able to enhance their awareness and response to their child’s unusual patterns of communication.
The researchers found that children who had received the intervention aged 2-4 had less severe overall symptoms six years later, with improved social communication and reduced repetitive behaviours, although no changes were seen in other areas such as language or anxiety. However, some difficulties remained, and additional ongoing support will usually be needed as the children get older.
“Our findings suggest that sustained changes in autism symptoms are possible after early intervention, something that has previously been regarded as difficult to achieve,” said Professor Tony Charman, who led the London arm of the trial and Professor Andrew Pickles, the study methodology expert, both from King’s College London.
“However, we found no evidence of any effect on child mental health, such as anxiety or challenging behaviours, suggesting that additional interventions may be needed to address these difficulties at later ages. As these children grow up, they will continue to need support in many aspects of their lives. We are currently working to further enhance our intervention.”
The authors note that the study included children with core autism symptoms rather than wider autism spectrum disorder, and therefore cannot be sure how these results would apply to children with less severe symptoms. They also add that the study was a follow-up at age 7-11 years so does not provide information in how children’s symptoms will develop into adulthood.
“This type of early intervention is distinctive in being designed to work with parents to help improve parent-child communication at home,” says Professor Jonathan Green, University of Manchester and Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital, who led the study.
“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. This is not a ‘cure’, in the sense that the children who demonstrated improvements will still show remaining symptoms to a variable extent, but it does suggests that working with parents to interact with their children in this way can lead to improvements in symptoms over the long-term.”
Notes to editor
Pickles et al (2016) Parent-mediated social communication therapy for young children with autism (PACT): long-term follow-up of a randomised controlled trial The Lancet DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(16)31229-6. Open access funded by the Medical Research Council.
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