Children with autism experienced fewer behaviors and needed less medication when their parents used behavior therapy in addition to medication, new research shows.

Researchers looked at children ages 4 to 13 with a history of aggression and diagnoses of autism, Asperger’s syndrome or pervasive developmental disorder (PDD). The children were divided into two groups, one of which was given the medication risperidone to treat their behavior. Children in the other group took risperidone as well, but their parents also underwent a parent training program to learn how to manage severely disruptive and non-compliant behavior while improving daily living skills.

Children in both groups displayed improvements over the course of six months, but the kids whose parents had training were less likely to be irritable, throw tantrums or be impulsive. On average, these children were also taking a smaller dose of the medication at the end of the study, researchers report in the December issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

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What’s more, the benefits of the behavioral treatment provided by the parents appeared to increase over time, researchers said.

“Medication alone has been shown to help with some symptoms of autism, but its potential is limited,” said Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, which provided funding for the study. “This study shows promise of a more effective treatment protocol that could improve life for children with autism and their families.”

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