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Teaching parents of children with autism how to interact more effectively with their offspring brings the children benefits that linger for years, according to the largest and longest-running study of autism interventions.
The training targeted parents with 2–4-year-old children with autism. Six years after the adults completed the year-long course, their children showed better social communication and reduced repetitive behaviours, and fewer were considered to have “severe” autism as compared to a control group, according to results published on 25 October in The Lancet1.
“This is not a cure,” says child psychiatrist Jonathan Green of the University of Manchester, and an investigator on the study. “But it does have a sustained and substantial reduction in severity and that’s important in families.”
John Constantino, a child psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, says that the results are “monumentally important”, because there has been little evidence showing that interventions for autism at an early stage are effective — even though researchers already broadly endorse the idea. “It is a rare long-term randomized controlled trial in a field in which there exists almost no data of this kind,” he says.
But he adds that the magnitude of the improvement was a disappointment, and that there were signs that the effects of treatment were diminishing over time.
And although the therapy benefited communication skills and decreased repetitive behaviours, it did not lessen childrens’ anxiety — another key symptom of autism. “Perhaps most of all, this underscores how desperately important it is that we develop higher-impact interventions,” he says.
More than 1% of US children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, a condition in which their ability to communicate is impaired. There is no treatment that has …