Breakthrough clinical study exposes crucial role parents play in behavior management for children with autism

parent-childHighlighted in an April issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, a clinical trial involving Emory University and the Marcus Autism Center provided insight into the effect parent training has on managing disruptive behavior with young children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and serious behavioral problems.

ASD is a chronic condition beginning in early childhood and is mostly characterized by impaired social communication and repetitive behavior. Commonly, severe behavioral problems accompany ASD in young children including tantrums, aggression, self-injury and severe noncompliance in response to routine environmental demands. For parents of children with ASD, these disruptive behaviors can be overwhelming and produce uncertainty on how to handle these problems. While there are approved medications for these disruptive behavioral problems, many parents are often reluctant to use medication.

In the multi-location study, 180 children (age 3 to 7 years) with ASD and serious behavioral problems were randomly assigned to either 24 weeks of parent training or 24 weeks of parent education. The study aimed to measure the effect of parent training in managing disruptive behaviors versus basic parent education. The following provides more detail on the difference between the two groups:

  • Parent training provided parents with specific/ practical skills and techniques for how to manage serious behavioral problems.
  • Parent education offered useful information on autism – but did not provide guidance on how to manage serious behavioral problems.

Study results were documented by both parents of the participating children, as well a clinician who was blind to treatment assignment:

  • Parent ratings: after 24 weeks of treatment, children in the parent-training group showed a 48 percent improvement on disruptive behavior compared to a 32 percent decline for parent education.
  • Clinician ratings: at week 24, 70 percent of children in the parent-training group showed a positive response, compared to 40 percent for parent education.

“This is the largest randomized trial of any behavioral intervention in children with autism spectrum disorder, and it shows that parent training works,” notes Lawrence Scahill, MSN, PhD, professor of pediatrics at Marcus and Emory School of Medicine, who directed the study.

Overall study results: while children in both groups improved, parent training was more effective in reducing disruptive and aggressive behavior than parent education. In fact, the benefits of parent training continued for up to six months after the clinical trial, demonstrating the benefits of parent training last over time.

Despite the increased methods for recognizing ASD in young children, rigorous testing and the distribution of evidenced-based treatments have lagged. Using the results of this study, researchers and physicians are able to show the impact of parent training and disseminate learned practices to a wider population.

To find an autism-related clinical trial at Emory, click the “Search for a clinical trial at Emory” link and type in the terms “Autism” and “Emory” into the search field.

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