Can early parental intervention improve symptoms of children's autism?
By Dr Amanda Gummer
The results of a long-term research study published this week in The Lancet, have shown that a therapy which helps parents to communicate with their children, has helped to reduce the long-term symptoms of autism.
The study involved autistic children aged two to four. Their parents were shown videos of themselves interacting with their children and receiving feedback on their communication from therapists.
Half of the families were given the usual autism therapies and half were treated with the new therapy. In the families given the usual therapies, 50 per cent were severely autistic at the beginning and that number increased to 63 per cent after six years. But in the group given the new intensive training, the opposite happened. 55 per cent of these children were classed as severely autistic at the beginning of the study, which dropped to 46 per cent after six years.
It is great to see results such as these that prove that interventions can work and have a long lasting impact on children and families suffering with autism. But it's also really important to point out here that engaged parenting methods, focusing on play and social interaction is beneficial for all children, not just those with autism.
It's also important to remember that autism is a spectrum disorder, and there are lots of children who have challenges with social and emotional development who do not have a diagnosis of autism. There is a lesson here for all parents - anyone who is concerned about their child's personal development is likely to benefit from focusing more on interaction and communication within the family. Moreover, those who may be struggling to communicate with their children should never feel ashamed to seek help in finding the best methods to do this.
The results of this study reinforce the importance of early childhood experience, as outlined in the APPG's 1001 Critical Days. This manifesto, officially launched by parliament in October 2013, is a vision for the provision of services in the UK for the early years period. It puts forward the moral, scientific and economic case for the importance of the conception to age two period - the first 1001 days of a child's life. The manifesto pledges to ensure all children have the best possible start in life.
I'm really excited to see what the results are of current research into interventions at different ages of childhood, to see when such therapies have the greatest impact and whether my belief that early intervention in key, will be proved.
But meanwhile, what harm can implementing early intervention in your family do? Make time to be playful with your child, let them lead and take the time to understand them and respond appropriately. It's important to note though, that you can only do this if you're feeling well in yourself and are emotionally available to your child, so take time to make sure your needs are also being met, to ensure you are able to be the best parent you can be.
This playful approach to family life is good for us as parents too. It reduces stress, lifts our general mood and even increases physical immunity. So to me it seems a no-brainer to get playful and have fun with your children. It will do you both the world of good.