Parent Training Pays Off for Children With Autism

Mary Chris Jaklevic

September 12, 2022

There's strong evidence that training parents to guide the development of children with autism reaps consistent benefits, according to a systematic review and meta-analysis of more than 50 high-quality studies.

"Referrals for parent training should now be considered the expected standard for medical practice," said a member of the research team, Timothy B. Smith, PhD, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

Programs that show parents how to teach functional skills and address maladaptive behaviors, also known as parent-mediated or parent-implemented interventions, offer an alternative to one-on-one professional services, which are in short supply, according to the paper, which was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Methods and Results

The meta-analysis included 54 papers based on randomized clinical trials involving 2,895 children, which compared the effects of various parent interventions with professional treatment, treatment as usual, or being on a wait-list to receive an intervention.

Overall the research team reported "moderately strong" average benefits from the parent-mediated interventions (Hedges' g, 0.553), indicating a medium effect size. Parent interventions had the greatest effect on outcomes involving positive behavior and social skills (0.603), followed by language and communication (0.545), maladaptive behavior (0.519), and life skills (0.239).

Similar benefits were observed regardless of a child's age or sex or which parent or parents implemented an intervention. The effects also appeared to be consistent regardless of intervention characteristics, such as the number of training sessions parents received, although the researchers noted that many studies did not provide data on such details.

Paul Carbone, MD, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, who was not involved in the review, said it demonstrates that such parental engagement is "vitally important" and pediatricians "should not hesitate to refer interested families."

Carbone, who is the medical director of an assessment program for children with suspected developmental disabilities, said many training programs for parents have adopted telehealth, adding to their convenience. To make appropriate referrals, primary care clinicians should become acquainted with local programs and learn which outcomes they target, he said.

Smith noted that primary care physicians are "better trained now than ever" to identify autism spectrum disorder and therefore are among the first to identify those conditions and help parents understand "that their actions at home absolutely make a difference in the child's development."

Overcoming Limitations, Future Research Needs

The research team attempted to overcome limitations with previous reviews by using comprehensive search terms and other methods to identify relevant studies, including some that had not been published. They included only studies that reflect common practice of training multiple parents simultaneously, they wrote.

Smith noted that long-term outcomes data and further study to compare effects on children with mild, moderate, and severe autism are needed.

Although logic would suggest greater benefits for children with severe disease, there are no data to demonstrate that, he said.

The authors of the study and Carbone reported no relevant competing interests.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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