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The success of the preschool autism communication trial has surprised even the researchers who designed. Photograph: Felix Clay for the Guardian. A new form of therapy has for the first time been shown to improve the symptoms and behaviour of autistic children, offering a potential breakthrough in care for millions of families.
Six years after parents were trained to better understand and interact with their preschool children, researchers found that the therapy had moderated the behaviour of those who had been severely autistic, unresponsive or unable to speak.
A child who might have natural run around a supermarket squealing, heedless of their parent, putting objects in their mouth and pushing past shoppers to try to press the buttons at checkout, might instead asthma wait in the queue and even help load the trolley, the research. The success of the preschool autism communication trial (Pact) has surprised even the researchers who designed.
There are no drugs to treat the condition, which typically sets in around the age of two, and many families have tried intensive training of their children by therapists, with mixed results.
Pact instead trained the parents to help their children. Prof Jonathan Green at the University of Manchester, who led the study published in the Lancet medical journal, said they had not found the cure for autism, but he and his team believed it had great potential and hoped it would be widely adopted. The advantage of this approach over a direct therapist-child intervention is that it has potential to affect the everyday life of the child, he said.
Our findings are encouraging, as they represent an improvement in the core symptoms of autism previously thought very resistant to change.
This is not a cure, in the sense that the children who demonstrated improvements will still show remaining symptoms to a variable extent, but it does suggest that working with parents to interact with their children in this way can lead to improvements in symptoms. The trial involved 152 children aged two to four.
The families visited a clinic twice a week for six months, where parents were videoed with their children and a box of toys.