Parent training program reduces behavior problems in children with autism spectrum disorder

Cynthia-Johnson_JSJ_6JJ2954-200x300Children with autism spectrum disorder often exhibit serious behavior problems, including tantrums, aggression and self-injury, but findings from a new multisite study demonstrate that a parent training program can reduce these behaviors by nearly 70 percent.

The study is the largest autism clinical trial to date. The findings were published today (April 21) in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 68 children has an autism spectrum disorder.

“There is a pressing need for effective, but affordable treatments for behavioral problems associated with autism spectrum disorder,” said Cynthia Johnson, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of clinical and health psychology at the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions, part of UF Health. “Parent training programs can help to address that need. Parents play a central role in the ongoing development of their child, and in many areas across the country, trained therapists may not be available.”

Johnson was the study site leader at the University of Pittsburgh before joining the UF faculty. Other study sites included Emory University, Indiana University, The Ohio State University, the University of Rochester and Yale University. Karen Bearrs, Ph.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at Emory University and a graduate of the UF clinical psychology doctoral program, is the paper’s first author. Support was provided by a National Institute of Mental Health-funded consortium.

Investigators randomly assigned 180 children with autism spectrum disorder and behavioral problems between the ages of 3 and 7 to a 24-week parent training program or a 24-week parent education program. Parents received one-on-one training with a clinician in 11 sessions, as well as two home visits and up to four additional sessions.

“This program requires familiarity with behavioral principles and children with autism spectrum disorder, but you don’t need to be an autism specialist to use the training,” Johnson said.

The researchers found that the parent training program reduced children’s serious behavior problems by nearly 70 percent. The comparison group of parents who received educational sessions but no instruction on how to manage behavioral problems experienced a 40 percent reduction in their children’s behavioral problems.

“Now that we have shown the efficacy we hope our structured parent training program will be more widely disseminated and readily available in communities, particularly those that do not have specialized autism centers,” Johnson said.

Johnson joined the UF faculty in January as part of the university’s early childhood interventions preeminence initiative and is a member of the Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies. She is currently conducting studies at UF to explore how parent training may benefit children with autism spectrum disorder who have sleep and feeding difficulties.