iStock_000003157241SmallChildren with autism often experience communication challenges. It’s crucial for patients to receive treatment interventions during early development to prevent long-term deficits, but it’s often difficult for them to access the specialists they need.

As a clinical psychologist in Seattle Children’s Autism Center, Dr. Mendy Minjarez knows how high the demand is for therapists who can address core autism features, such as language deficits.

“Even if patients are lucky enough to see a behavior intervention specialist, their treatment is limited to the appointment time,” Minjarez said. “For years, parents would say to me ‘I wish I could practice with my child at home.’”

Minjarez made that wish a reality in 2007 by developing a new way to offer Pivotal Response Training (PRT), which focuses on teaching parents to improve their child’s language skills by using common motivations in daily life. PRT had previously been taught during individual therapy sessions with a clinician, the parent and the child, but Minjarez’s model aims to serve many more families by teaching parents in a group setting.

Now, Minjarez has collaborated with Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford researchers to publish a study testing the group model of PRT.  She discovered most parents effectively used the training and their children showed significantly more language progress than those who did not attend the group training.

We asked Minjarez the following questions to learn more about this unique therapy:

Why is language training important for children with autism?

Children with autism often have varying degrees of speech deficits – whether they’re non-verbal, have only slight language delays or have unusual speech patterns. It can be hugely frustrating for parents to raise a child who cannot communicate. These delays can lead to behavioral challenges including tantrums or aggressive behaviors. It’s crucial that these patients are treated during early development to maximize their long-term prognosis and prevent long-term issues.

How does group PRT work?

Parents attend the group training over 12 weeks and are taught to improve their child’s language skills by reinforcing their use of language related to a specific task. Anytime a child attempts to ask for something – a toy, for example – they are rewarded with the item if they say its name. For example, mom might say, “Do you want the ball? ‘Say ball.’” It can be done anywhere, anytime.

This therapy is more intense than other language treatments because parents can use it all the time, which may be why it’s so effective.

Additionally, PRT targets a child’s motivations, which are often different for children with autism. Many of these kids also have social deficits, so the social motivators that work with other children may not be effective in children with autism.

How easy is PRT for parents to learn, use?

PRT is very easy for parents to learn. In our most recent study, 84% of parents trained were able to use PRT effectively in their home. In fact, many parents we train find they already do this some of the time, but we can fine-tune their methods and help them identify new opportunities to introduce it into everyday life.

PRT also doesn’t require parents to set aside extra time, it’s woven into natural parent-child interactions.

How does group PRT affect parents?

A past study showed that parents who completed PRT felt more empowered and experienced a decrease in stress related to parent-child interactions. That was quite remarkable, because we don’t often see that effect with autism studies.

Training parents in a group may have contributed to these positive effects. There’s a lot of peer support in these groups. Parents share their challenges and successes with their children and relate to one another. Throughout the training we ask parents to share videos of themselves using PRT in their home. It’s always a very positive experience as parents support each other.

How can parents join a PRT group?

Currently, group PRT is only available at Stanford and Seattle Children’s Autism Center. If your child is a patient at our Autism Center simply talk to your provider to see if PRT would be a useful treatment for your child. If they are not, ask your physician to refer your child to the Seattle Children’s Autism Center.

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