Autistic Spectrum Disorder affects about 1 in 100 people in the UK, with an estimated half of these also having a learning disability. ASD is used as an umbrella term, encompassing everything from Asperger’s Syndrome to Pathological Demand Avoidance. In recent years, the MMR vaccine has received considerable, albeit now discredited, blame for autism in children, however the true cause remains unknown. Although we still have a long way to go before we are able to ‘cure’ autism, a recent study published in the Lancet medical journal has offered some insight into ways of alleviating symptoms of core autism in young children who have been diagnosed as severely autistic.

 

New ideas in therapy

The recent study, led by Professor Jonathan Green from the University of Manchester, has turned more traditional techniques on their heads. Current treatment does not involve any form of drug, but can involve intense therapy, focusing on the child primarily, with the surrounding family. It has been claimed, however, that none of these techniques have proved to have such definitive long-term effects as the new form of therapy outlined in the Lancet. The new therapy focuses on teaching parents of severely autistic children how to recognise and react to communication cues from their child. The results have been deemed ‘extraordinary’ by Professor Green, but he does reiterate that this is not a cure, as the children will still demonstrate symptoms.

 

What the study outlined

The study, entitled the parent-mediated social communication therapy for young children with autism (known as PACT), involved 152 children aged 2-4 years and their families. Its aim was to discover whether parent-mediated communication therapy could improve parent and child social interaction on a long-term basis. The parents and children were invited to two therapy sessions per week over a six month period, with techniques being deemed neither as intrusive nor as invasive as other therapies.

Parents were taught more effective communication techniques which allowed them to interpret communicative signals from their children and respond in such a way as to increase the child’s ability to interact. Such communicative signals could be verbal, but they could also include smaller, non-verbal signals which a parent may not otherwise have noticed or realised was an attempt at communication.

 

The results

During the follow-up, when the children had reached 10 years old, some dramatic changes were recorded. When the children were reassessed, fewer of those who had received PACT therapy were deemed severely autistic, and parents reported changes such as an improved relationship with their child. These changes were facilitated by the parent’s improved ability to communicate with and recognise communication signals from their children. What the results could indicate is that it is possible to reduce symptoms of autism with early intervention. However, it is not yet known whether this type of therapy would work with older children.

There is also reason to believe that the results may not be as definitive as some would like to believe, although they have certainly provided a new form of therapy which yields positive results. Further investigation is necessary, working with larger groups of children in order to establish whether the new form of therapy is significantly more effective than current techniques.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the study has given parents a ray of hope, providing a way to potentially reduce the impact of autism on their child and their family relationships.

If you are concerned that your child may have autism, make an appointment to speak to your GP. They will be happy to discuss your concerns and can provide information on what to do next. You can also find advice and resources on the NHS website, or from your child’s school.