Grant Examines Parent-Based Interventions of Children with Autism

January 14, 2010

Although parents are universally acknowledged as mainstays of their children’s autism treatment team, they often have to fend for themselves when managing their children’s behavior at home. They also have to figure out the fractured autism service system largely on their own. A $5-million, National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), multi-center grant, which includes the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC), aims to end that feeling of isolation and bewilderment among parents.

The grant, spread across five sites over five years, will study the effectiveness of a structured parent training program compared to an intensive, psychoeducational program for 180 preschool-age children with autism. URMC will receive $875,000 over five years and will recruit 38 children between 3 and 6 years old into the study, while working alongside collaborators at Yale, Ohio State University, Pittsburgh, and Indiana University.

“We have been studying what treatments are effective for children with autism, but we don’t yet know what is effective for parents to help their children,” said Tristram Smith, Ph.D., principal investigator of the grant at URMC, and associate director for Research of the Division of Neurodevelopmental and Behavioral Pediatrics and the Strong Center for Developmental Disabilities at URMC’s Golisano Children’s Hospital.

Study participants will be randomly assigned to either six months of a psychoeducational program for the children or six months of structured training for the parents. The parent training will teach them the skills they need to get through routine tasks, such as teaching their child to dress themselves or helping their child communicate what he wants in order to avoid a tantrum. Outcomes will be determined by impact on parent and family stress, parent knowledge of the disorder and resources available to them and by direct observation of the parent and child by an assessor blind to which group the family was randomly assigned.

“For parents, one of the hardest parts of living with a child who has autism is a feeling that they’ve lost control. If we can find an effective way to teach them how to help their children, we could give them some of that feeling of control back,” Smith said.

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