Kids with Autism Benefit from Parents Receiving Training

by Gabriel Humffray

When your child has been diagnosed with asthma or diabetes, you're given specific instructions that help you deal with day-to-day needs and in case of emergencies.

Recent studies suggest that kids with autism benefit when their parents have received training, as well. Lawrence Scahill, professor at Yale University School of Nursing and Child Study Center, studied 124 children, aged 4 to 13 with autism spectrum disorder and behavioral problems.

The children in the study had behavioral problems, including tantrums, aggression, and self-injury on a daily basis. Scahill reported that all the children were prescribed medication. Parents of half the children received six months of training on techniques to help them better manage behavioral issues in their child. Parent training included regular visits to the clinic to teach parents how to respond to behavior problems and how to help children adapt to daily living situations. Parents were taught how to recognize subtle clues and help prevent problems before they start. In addition, certain reward techniques proved effective in clinical settings.

The researchers discovered that the children whose parents received training needed less medication and their behavioral problems appeared to decrease. "Serious behavioral problems interfere with everyday living for children and their families," says Scahill, "Decreasing these serious behavioral problems results in children who are more able to manage everyday living." Scahill is currently engaged in research that compares autistic children not on medication whose parents receive behavioral training with those whose parents do not receive training.

Helping Kids with Autism

Autism is a lifelong condition, but you can help your child learn new skills and overcome challenges. The following tips can make life easier for both you and your autistic child:

Structure and Safety

Children with autism might have a hard time adapting what they've learned in one setting and carrying those skills to another situation. Talk with teachers, daycare providers and therapists to create consistency. For example, if your child communicates well with sign language at home, see if that skill can be transferred to school.

Set up a schedule with regular times for meals, therapy and bedtime. Try to maintain this schedule but if you do need to change it, let your child know ahead of time to the best of your ability. Catch your child doing something good and reinforce that behavior. Praise appropriate behavior or a new skill. Reward target behavior with a treat like playing with a favorite toy or a sticker.

Find Ways to Connect

Autistic children use many non-verbal clues to communicate. A gesture, facial expression or sound might indicate they're tired, hungry or want something. Can you read the clues and meet that need? Investigate what triggered a tantrum. Everyone gets upset when they're ignored or misunderstood. Autistic kids are not any different. Some tantrums might be prevented by picking up on non-verbal clues.

Have fun together. What things make your child laugh or smile. Enjoy some time doing those things, even if they don't seem educational or therapeutic. Some children with autism are very sensitive to touch, taste, smell, sound and light. If you understand what affects your child, you can better prevent problem situations and create successful experiences.

Create a Personalized Plan

Work with your child's therapist and put together a personalized treatment plan. Common autism treatments include behavior therapy, speech-language therapy, play-based therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and nutritional therapy. The National Institute of Mental Health says that a good autism treatment plan will accomplish these things:

• Build on your child's interests
• Offer a predictable schedule
• Teach tasks as a series of simple steps
• Actively engage your child's attention in highly structured activities
• Provide regular reinforcement of behavior
• Involve the parents

Do you have a child diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder? What seems to best help your little one learn, grow and thrive?

Medical references:
Scahill, L., Horrigan, J. (February 2012) Autism Speaks, New York City; Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Accessed March 29, 2012.