Stanford/Packard Study Of Autism Behavioral Therapy Seeks Participants

-- Researchers are seeking participants for a new study to examine whether the language skills of children with autism improve after their parents participate in group training sessions for a type of behavioral therapy known as pivotal response treatment, or PRT.

Parents who have children ages 2-6 with autism spectrum disorder and significant language delays are eligible to take part in the study. More information is available by calling (650) 736-1235.

The study, which is being conducted by scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, will use an experimental group and a control group to measure changes in the language ability of children.

Parents in the experimental group will meet together weekly to learn to use PRT to interact with their children. “Teaching PRT in a group format has not yet been investigated,” said principal investigator Antonio Hardan, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at the medical school and director of the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Clinic at the Stanford Autism Center at Packard Children’s.

Parents in the control group will participate in weekly psycho-educational sessions, in which they will learn about a range of topics related to autism, including general diagnostic strategies and interventions. (Individuals randomized to the psycho-educational group will be offered the chance to participate later in PRT training.)

PRT targets broad, “pivotal” areas of a child’s behavior, such as motivation and social initiation, by rewarding specific behaviors during play and everyday interactions — in the kitchen, at the park — as opposed to those in a clinical setting or classroom. Hardan’s study will focus on language. For example, if a child wants a ball and successfully uses words to express this desire, he or she will be given a ball (the reward).

“We’re targeting language because it is one of the key prognostic factors that determine how well children with autism will function in the future,” Hardan said.

PRT has proven effective in individual parent-child therapy sessions, Hardan said. But given increasing diagnoses of autism, the current study hopes to show that teaching PRT to parents in groups is not only effective but also more efficient and less expensive, Hardan said.

“It is clear that the growing number of cases of autism far exceeds the available services,” the researchers wrote in their grant proposal. “This discrepancy poses a challenge to researchers and service providers who must develop mechanisms for systematically disseminating empirically supported treatments to meet the abundant service need.”

Teaching parents would also result in more intense treatment, Hardan added. “If a child is in a professional therapy session, he or she may get a few hours of PRT a day,” he said. “But parents spend a lot more time with their kids. So if they learn PRT and implement it effectively, their kids will get a lot more therapy.”

The researchers are seeking 52 children and their parents over the next two years to participate in the study, which is supported by Autism Speaks, the largest autism science and advocacy organization in North America.

  • What: Study seeking participants to test training for parents of children with autism in pivotal response treatment.
  • Who: Parents of children ages 2-6 with autism spectrum disorder and significant language delays.
  • Where: Stanford School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital
  • How: Call (650) 736-1235 for general information and enrollment eligibility.


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