Felicidade_A_very_happy_boyA new intervention for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) boosts children’s development and improves parents’ mental health. Researchers led by Dr. Richard Solomon at the Ann Arbor Center for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics conducted a clinical trial for the PLAY project. They found that families in the PLAY project demonstrated improved parent-child interactions. The PLAY project may offer a more cost-effective alternative to traditional therapeutic interventions.

The study evaluated 128 families of three- to six-year-old children with ASD. The families resided in five United States cities. Each family was randomly assigned to receive either typical community services like special education preschool and occupational therapy or participation in the PLAY (Play and Language for Autistic Youngsters) project in addition to community services.

The PLAY project’s goal is to teach parents to interact with their ASD children in ways that encourage development. The families in the PLAY project group received monthly, three-hour home visits from trained PLAY project consultants. The consultants coached parents on improving their parent-child interactions through videos, modeling, and written feedback.

After a year, the PLAY project families demonstrated more improvement in parent-child interaction, parental well-being, and child development than the families that received only community services. Parents in the PLAY project reported engaging their children in multiple 15 to 20 minute play sessions each day. Parents in the PLAY project exhibited decreased symptoms of depression.

Children in the PLAY project had improved interactional and functional development. Half of the children in the PLAY project improved on at least one measure on a typical autism rating system, compared to only one-third of children receiving only community services. The researchers caution that such dramatic improvement is not typical. The results require further analysis.

This study is among the first to find an ASD intervention that improves the mental health of parents. It also demonstrates an efficient, cost-effective alternative to ongoing professional intervention. A year of working with a psychologist can cost tens of thousands of dollars, a year in the PLAY project costs around $4,000 per child.

“We’re excited about these findings that offer a less costly and highly effective option, especially for children who are presently on waiting lists for higher cost services. PLAY can assist in getting children with ASD the intensive services they need while at the critical early intervention stage,” stated Dr. Solomon.

This research is published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.

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