Monthly home visits to teach parents how to best work with their children with autism can go a long way toward improving kids’ interactions, researchers say.

Over the course of a year, children whose families received monthly three-hour visits from a specialist showed greater gains in attention and initiation skills as compared to other kids on the spectrum, according to findings published this month in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics.

Parents who received the extra help were also more effectively able to engage with their child, the study found.

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The training relied on an approach known as Play and Language for Autistic Youngsters, or PLAY, which focuses on helping parents improve interactions with their children with autism by learning to identify and respond to their child’s cues.

For the study, 128 children with autism ages 2 to 6 participated in community services like special education preschool, speech and occupational therapy. In addition, half of the families involved in the research were randomly assigned to receive monthly visits from a PLAY project consultant.

Not only did the kids see greater improvements in cases where their families received the home visits, but parents in this group also reported fewer symptoms of depression after a year of training, the study found.

Researchers said the PLAY approach is promising since the home visits average $3,500 to $4,500 annually per child, far less than many other autism interventions.

“We’re excited about these findings that offer a less costly and highly effective option, especially for children who are presently on waiting lists for higher cost services,” said Richard Solomon of the Ann Arbor Center for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics in Michigan who led the study. “PLAY can assist in getting children with ASD the intensive services they need while at the critical early intervention age.”