Training Parents Aids Autistic Kids’ Language

By Amy Norton for Reuters Health

Training parents to better communicate with their autistic preschoolers can spur children’s language development, according to a study of one such training program.

Though parental training courses are a growing part of managing autism spectrum disorders, there has been little evidence from clinical trials that the approach aids children’s language, behavior and social skills.
“The evidence base has been very limited, so our study is a major contribution,” Dr. Helen McConachie, of the University of Newcastle in the UK, told Reuters Health.

Specifically, she and her colleagues found that a program known as More Than Words helped parents build their 2-, 3- and 4-year-old children’s vocabularies. The program, which was developed by Canadian doctors, teaches parents how to interact with their autistic children in a playful way-using “fun” words, games, musical speech and other tactics to aid their language development.

The findings are published in the Journal of Pediatrics.

Autism spectrum disorders refer to a group of developmental impairments that includes autism and a milder disorder called Asperger syndrome. All of the disorders involve varying degrees of impairment in communication, social interaction and behavior.

In more severe cases, children may speak very little and use single words rather than sentences. They also often have trouble reading other people’s non-verbal “cues,” like facial expressions, body language and tone of voice.
Parents in the current study attended a weekly, 20-hour training course that taught them to interact with their preschoolers in particular ways designed to spur language development. Parents trained together in small groups, the researchers note, which allowed them to give each other support and share experiences.

McConachie and her colleagues compared 26 parents who went through the course with another group of 25 parents who had not yet attended. Seven months into the study, children in the program had a larger vocabulary overall than those whose parents had not gone through the course.

In observations of the parents, the researchers found that those who went through training were more likely to use language-building “strategies,” such as simple language, attention-grabbing words, praise and games.

Though the study was small, McConachie said it was larger than most previous studies of early interventions for autism and, unlike many studies, included a comparison group where parents had not yet received training.
That makes it more likely that the children’s language gains were sparked by their parents’ training, according to McConachie.

She noted that the first large-scale clinical trial of such training
— the Preschool Autism Communication Trial — is set to get underway in the UK next year.

SOURCE: Journal of Pediatrics, September 2005.

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