Parent Involvement in Autism Treatment Models

by | Nov 24, 2023 | Professionals

If you’re a speech language pathologist, occupational therapist or other professional who works with children, there can sometimes be barriers to helping your clients meet their goals. One is a lack of parent involvement. 

Why Parent Involvement in Autism Treatment Is Important

In most autism therapies, the therapist or clinician is put in the leading role. Many parents only participate every now and then and some don’t have much of an idea at all of what their child does in their sessions. While you play a critical role as the knowledgeable professional, parent involvement does matter in autism treatment.

Parent involvement is a goal of many treatment models, based on the “principle that neuropsychological development is determined by interaction with the environment.” For a child, the parents are a big part of their environment, even if they aren’t interacting with their parents in a neurotypical way. 

Lauren Lowry, a Toronto-based SLP, says that “the power of involving parents in their child’s intervention cannot be underestimated.”

Nowadays, more clinicians are encouraging parents to get involved with their child’s development. With guidance from the therapist, parents can learn how to help their child at home. This way, parents can “turn any everyday activity into an opportunity for communication, and essentially provide therapy every day for their child.”

Lowry goes on to say:

“Parent-implemented intervention provides a child with the most possible opportunities to learn, since they are learning during their everyday life, each and every day. And because they are learning new things at home with the people closest to them, learning becomes natural, motivating, and fun. When parents and speech language pathologists team up and collaborate in this way, it ensures that a child on the autism spectrum learns from the best possible teachers – their parents.”

However, a condition like autism affects an individual’s capability to interact with others. Parents of autistic children often find it difficult to catch or keep their child’s attention or engage them in activities. Therein lies the problem of parental involvement. How can parents struggling to engage their child at home make any progress in helping them?

Related: What Makes an Autism Remediation “Effective”?

How To Get Parents More Involved in Autism Treatment

A lack of parent involvement in autism treatment can be frustrating, but there are a lot of reasons that might be behind parents’ seeming lack of interest in their child’s treatment. Understanding these reasons is the key to getting parents more involved.

Parents Who Feel Unprepared To Take on a Bigger Role in Their Child’s Autism Treatment

Many parents aren’t prepared to be involved in their child’s learning and development. Until somewhat recently, it was a rare occurrence.

Alice Walkup, MS, BCBA suggests explaining to parents at the beginning that they will be a “critical part of their child’s learning and will be shown how they can help the child practice what they’ve been taught during therapy sessions.”

Parents Who Are Experiencing Barriers to Participation

Walkup also recommends considering barriers to participation from the start of your professional relationship. Many parents don’t understand or trust in certain types of treatment. You can combat this by explaining the processes up front, in clear and easy-to-understand detail and encouraging parents to share any questions or concerns.

Some other common barriers for parents include “education level, socio-economic status, competing responsibilities, other family members in the home, cultural beliefs, and beliefs about autism and autism treatments.” Once you understand what might be hindering parent involvement, you can come up with a solution for the problem.

Other ways you can work to understand parents’ concerns include:

  • Asking questions that will help you better understand the parents’ experiences – about what other services or therapies the child has received (or is still receiving), what supports (community, family and individual) are available to the parents, and what they see as their biggest challenges related to parenting a child with autism
  • Being an active and compassionate listener
  • Minimizing your use of clinical terms and acronyms. When explaining behavioral principles, it helps to use simpler, every-day examples to illustrate the concepts
  • Explaining the intervention process and what a typical session may look like
  • Using language that fosters a cooperative spirit; for example, saying, “we as a team” instead of “you” when discussing home-based intervention

Parents Who Are Also Dealing With Their Own Problems

We all have our own problems, including parents. Many parents, especially those who are raising a child with developmental problems, neglect their own wellbeing to focus on their child. It’s understandable, but it’s not feasible in the long run. Ignoring self-care and not being attentive to your wellbeing will eventually impact your ability to parent.

Studies Show that Parents Play a Crucial Role in Their Child’s Autism Treatment

Several studies point to the crucial role of the parent in treating developmental issues. One review led by researcher Hedda Meadan focused specifically on studies involving children with autism. The research team looked at 12 studies following young children on the autism spectrum and found that in parent-implemented intervention:

  • Parents successfully learned new strategies to use with their children at home
  • Parents’ use of these new strategies resulted in positive changes in their children’s social and communication skills

About the results, the researchers say:

“…a few hours of therapy each week does not result in the type of developmental gains for children compared to those achieved by teaching families intervention strategies and encouraging them to take advantage of the ‘teachable moments’ they have with their children in home and community environments.”

Related: Why a Focus on Relationship Must Come Before a Focus on Behavior

RDI® Puts the Parent in the Leading Role in Their Child’s Autism Treatment

These results confirm the generally accepted belief among clinicians that parents need to be involved in their child’s autism treatment. They also show that parents can learn how to help their child and when they do, it drives their child’s learning, growth and development.

The RDI® Program is different from other autism treatment models in that it puts the parent in a leading role. Instead of taking a backseat to their child’s development, parents work in conjunction with their own Certified RDI® Consultant, as well as their child’s other therapists and teachers, to figure out how they can best help their child.

Would a parent-focused model help you to help your clients?

Learn more about the RDI® Professional Training Program today.


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