OU Research Evaluates Parent-Focused Approach in Autism

April 29, 2014                                                                                                  

A new study by researchers at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center finds parents of children with autism can help improve their children’s communication and social skills utilizing specific techniques.

The research was mandated by the Oklahoma Legislature and funded by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. It involved a program called ConnectedKids designed to evaluate parents’ use of developmental and applied behavior analytic strategies with children with autism spectrum disorder. The research utilized therapists in the home environment. Parents were taught specific techniques that were then utilized in sessions with their children, both with the therapist present and also practiced between visits.

The Oklahoma Department of Education reports there are 4121 Oklahoma children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. However, the research team at the OU College of Allied Health said the number of children with autism may be twice that number because the education department’s number does not include children younger than 3, those home schooled or those in private schools.

"With more children being identified with autism, we don't have enough professionals with expertise in autism to meet the growing needs,” said Rene Daman, M.S., P.T., principal investigator and director of the Oklahoma Autism Network, a program of the college’s Tolbert Center for Developmental Disabilities and Autism. “That is why this research is so important. We know that parents spend the most time with their children. Our goal was to assess what impact training parents to utilize evidence-based behavior analytic strategies would have on the communication and social skills of children with autism.”

The study spanned a year and a half and involved 21 families. During that time, researchers made in-home visits twice a week over the course of 12 to 16 weeks for each family. On each visit, parents were taught specific skills like how to follow their child's lead.

"They learn how to watch and observe what their child is interested in," Daman said. "Once they
learn how to follow their child's lead, they then learn how to use other skills in an effort to increase the child's interest in engaging with them and to expand the child's social communication skills."

Researchers found that the amount of time the children were engaged with their parents improved significantly following the intervention with a mean increase of 15 percent. The percentage of time that children engaged in problem behavior decreased significantly following intervention and was sustained to the six-month follow-up.

In addition, all of the parents surveyed at the end of the research project indicated that they understood how to use the different techniques to address social-communication and engagement goals they have for their children. All also agreed that they felt more competent in helping their children interact as a result of the intervention and that they believed their children would have better long-term social and communication skills because of it.  

While there is no cure for Autism Spectrum Disorder, Daman said results of the study provide welcome news for parents of children with Autism.

"We saw statistically significant change in the children in not only their social communication skills but also in other developmental skills,” she said. 

Daman said busy parents were also relieved to find they could incorporate the techniques they had learned in the research session into their customary daily routines and play interactions with their children. The families also reported the techniques gave them confidence that they could handle any situation that might arise in a public setting. Researchers said this is important because it helps families of children with autism overcome a sense of isolation many of them feel.

“Many families of children with autism may be reluctant to go out in public with their child. They often feel as if they are judged a lot by others when they go out in public because of their children’s challenging behavior. These children may exhibit behaviors that the average person could interpret as that’s just a bratty kid, which is not the case,” Daman said. “Parents involved in the research indicated the techniques they had learned allowed them to have the confidence to do those things others take for granted like going out to eat, going to church or to the park.”

On a parent survey completed at the end of the program, one parent wrote of the experience:

“Learning how to interact with my son was the best thing for him and our family. He is like a whole new child. He makes eye contact, has imitation skills, talking more and starting to understand emotions, what we learned in this program helped me connect with my son. Everyone should have access to learning ABA techniques. I can't say enough good things about the program & every person we interacted with.”

Based upon the research findings, Daman’s report to the legislature recommends developing a way to recruit and retain more board certified Behavior Analysts and other professionals who can teach the ConnectedKids techniques to more families. Currently there are only 37 certified behavior analysts in Oklahoma.

More information on autism and this project can be found on the website of the Oklahoma Autism Network, a program of the Tolbert Center for Developmental Disabilities and Autism at the OU College of Allied Health: www.okautism.org



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