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26 October 2016, 08:38 | Updated: 26 October 2016, 09:07
An experimental autism therapy that helps parents communicate with their children has had a record level of success in reducing core symptoms of the condition.
A trial involving daily 20- to 30-minute sessions of planned communication and play activities showed benefits that lasted six years after the treatment ended.
It is the first time long-term effects of such an early intervention have been demonstrated.
The follow-up study was designed to look at long-term outcomes from the Pre-school Autism Communication Trial (Pact), which involved 152 autistic children aged two to four.
In the new analysis, 121 or the original participants were re-assessed after six years. Of these, 59 had received the Pact therapy.
Symptoms in the treated children were found to be less severe, with improvements in social communication and a reduction in repetitive behaviour.
Although no changes were seen in other areas such as language, anxiety and challenging conduct, experts regarded the results as highly significant.
Study leader Professor Jonathan Green, from the University of Manchester, said: "This type of early intervention is distinctive in being designed to work with parents to help improve parent-child communication at home.
"The advantage of this approach over a direct therapist-child intervention is that it has potential to affect the everyday life of the child.
"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 over the long-term.''
Autism is a "spectrum'' developmental disorder affecting about one in 100 people and causes symptoms that vary greatly in severity.
Core symptoms include an impaired ability to communicate and engage socially, and obsessive or repetitive behaviour.
The Pact intervention focused on parents who were invited to watch videos of themselves interacting with their children and receiving feedback from therapists.
This had the effect of enhancing parents' awareness of their child's unusual patterns of communication and helped them to respond appropriately.
Parents took part in 12 therapy sessions over six months, followed by regular support over another six months.
In addition, parents agreed to spend 20 to 30 minutes each day engaged in planned communication and play activities with their children.
Autism severity was given a score of one to 10 according to a standard international method of combining social communication and behaviour symptoms.
The findings, published in The Lancet medical journal, showed a 17% reduction in the proportion of children from the intervention group with severe symptoms.
Study co-author Professor Tony Charman, from King's College London, said: "Our findings suggest that sustained changes in autism symptoms are possible after early intervention, something that has previously been regarded as difficult to achieve.
"However, we found no evidence of any effect on child mental health, such as anxiety or challenging behaviours, suggesting that additional interventions may be needed to address these difficulties at later ages.
"As these children grow up, they will continue to need support in many aspects of their lives. We are currently working to further enhance our intervention.''