Promise of effective treatment for autism and other developmental disorders at a far lower cost

Parents of autistic children can spend as much as $50,000 a year on therapies for their children. But a new study from Case Western Reserve University's Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences shows promise of providing effective treatment for autism and other developmental disorders at a far lower cost.

Gerald Mahoney, the Verna Houck Motto Professor for Families and Communities and co-director of the Center on Intervention for Children and Families at the Mandel School, and Frida Perales, a research associate, conducted a year-long study of the effectiveness of "responsive teaching" strategies for parents to help their autistic children develop and use pivotal developmental behaviors.

Responsive teaching strategies promote parent interactions with their children through strategies such as "follow the child's lead" and "take one turn and wait." The results of their study appear in an article in the April 2005 issue of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.

Mahoney and Perales compared the effects of the responsive teaching strategies on 50 children and their mothers, divided into two groups: children with pervasive developmental disorders, or PDDs (primarily autism), and children with other types of developmental disorders. The researchers investigated how these responsive teaching strategies helped parents' interaction with their children and improved children's development.

The study found that the responsive teaching strategies improved parents' responsiveness with their children, and were highly effective at enhancing children's developmental growth. Both groups of children made an overall 60 percent increase in their rate of cognitive development and a 150 percent increase in their rate of language development. The technique was also effective at reducing the social/emotional problems of the children with PDDs. "Although many professionals have speculated that interventions that encourage parents to become more responsive can be effective at promoting children's socioemotional well-being, this is the first long-term intervention study to actually demonstrate this effect," the authors write.

Equally important, the improvements occurred with an average of just 32 sessions with early intervention specialists, a relatively modest level of contact. The annual average costs for such interventions are about $5,000, a fraction of the annual costs of most existing interventions for children with PDDs.

The results also challenge the idea that only highly structured interventions can help children with PDDs, say the authors, since the less-structured procedures, which have aided the cognitive and language development of children with developmental disabilities, address those same needs in children with PDDs.



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