The doctor-free way to improve autism

As autism rates continue to skyrocket — shooting up 119 percent between 2000 and 2014 — more and more parents are looking for ways to help their children. It’s heartbreaking for parents to see their children trapped by this disease. They want for their children what all parents want — joy, success, fulfillment. And, like most parents, they are willing to work tirelessly to help their children reach their potential.

Unfortunately, many “experts” who deal with autism don’t truly believe in the kids’ potential, or in the parents’ willingness and ability to do the hard work it takes to achieve it. But I’ve worked with autistic patients and their parents for years, and I’ve seen tremendous change and success.

The reason? Because I believe in the kids — and maybe even more importantly, I believe in their parents. I know that I’m only a guide. It’s the parents who do the real work of helping their children. I’ve seen it time and again.

And it looks like the science is finally catching up. The study I want to tell you about today looked at how parent involvement can improve functioning in autistic kids.

The results took the researchers by surprise. But knowing what I know about the amazing parents in the autism community, they don’t surprise me one bit.

The study was a follow-up analysis of kids who had been enrolled in the Preschool Autism Communication Trial (PACT). PACT included children ages 2 to 4 who had autism. They were assigned either to an intervention group or a control group. In the intervention group, parents were taught strategies to increase their sensitivity and responsiveness to their kids’ communication.

Here’s an example: Parents would be shown videos of themselves interacting with their kids. Therapists would give them feedback to help them better understand their kids and communicate with more focus.

The parents took part in these sessions for a year. At the same time, they also did 20 to 30 minutes of planned communication and play activities with their kids each day.

In the control group, kids just underwent their regular treatment. Which, from what I’ve seen, is usually next to nothing.

This follow-up analysis I’m telling you about today, which was published in the Lancet, checked in with the kids 6 years later to see if there were lasting effects of the intervention. Not surprisingly, the kids whose parents learned to communicate with them more effectively were better off than the other kids. Even years after the initial intervention.

Of the kids in the intervention group, there was a 17 percent reduction in the proportion who had severe symptoms. The improvements were seen in two specific areas: social-communication and repetitive symptoms.

It makes so much sense. Parents are with their kids 24/7. Teaching them how to extend therapy beyond the walls of the therapist’s office is bound to be effective.

The sad part of this study is that it comes from a place where the study authors (as with many conventional leaders in this field) thought these core symptoms couldn’t be changed. I can tell you from experience that they can. And parental involvement is the key.

And why wouldn’t that be so? I know my patients tend to be a highly motivated group of individuals. But I see so many improvements in my autistic population, and it is because those parents are remarkable. I hope they are reading this because I want them to know just how proud of them I am. It is amazing what a motivated parent can do — and not one that is told to get the kid therapy and not bother with any other intervention.

And that, basically, is the story that is replayed with almost every disease taken on by complementary medicine. Why is it so shocking to doctors that patients and their caregivers can take an active role in their own healing? Are they so egocentric that they think therapy doesn’t take place outside of their offices? I would venture to say that most healing takes place far from the doctor.

And this is where my consistency message comes in. Being consistent with any treatment modality is going to enhance its effectiveness.

One final note about this particular study. It was performed on kids with more severe versions of the spectrum.  Imagine what could happen in children with less severe symptoms.  This early intervention really should be the gold standard of therapy.

It makes sense and it works.


“Parent-mediated social communication therapy for young children with autism (PACT): long-term follow-up of a randomised controlled trial,” The Lancet 2016; 388(10059): 2501-2509