New research suggests that virtual training can help parents learn to address behavior issues in their kids with autism, a development that could be especially meaningful amid the pandemic.

In situations where families are unable to access in-person training on behavioral intervention, a study published recently in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis finds that telehealth methods are a good substitute, allowing parents to grasp and implement the concepts.

“Since parents play an important role in the treatment of their children’s autism symptoms, developing effective, efficient, socially acceptable and accessible training so they can implement these interventions is critically important,” said Wayne Fisher, director of the Rutgers University Center for Autism Research, Education and Services, who led the study. “However, many parents do not have access to this complex training due to geographic, economic and time barriers — or more recently the pandemic, which has made in-person training difficult.”

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The study involved 25 parents of children with autism who had no experience with applied behavior analysis, a common intervention for those with the developmental disorder. Thirteen of the adults participated in nine, 35- to 60-minute multimedia modules and conducted role-play activities with a researcher. The remaining study participants simply continued with whatever behavior programs their children already had in place.

Outside experts were asked to evaluate videos of the parents in both groups responding to researchers who used a script to simulate common behavior issues seen in those with autism. Both groups “showed equivalently low levels of correct skills” at the outset, but those who participated in the virtual training “showed marked improvement in correct skills” after completing the sessions while there was little change in the other parents’ responses, the study found.

Researchers indicated that parents in the virtual training group rated the program highly.

“The findings show that parents can be virtually trained in these complex procedures and that the methods are ones that they find easy to use,” Fisher said.

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