Public talk to focus on training for parents of children at risk for autism

In a public talk next week, Brock researchers will share recent findings on how parent training can help create supportive environments for young children who are at risk of and have shown early possible signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Graduate student Claire Shingleton-Smith will join Professor Maurice Feldman and Associate Professor Julie Koudys, all of the Department of Applied Disability Studies in the Lifespan Development Research Institute, to present “The Effectiveness of Virtual Parent Training for Young Children at Risk for Autism Spectrum Disorder” on Thursday, June 3 from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. as part of the virtual Lifespan Speaker Series.

The webinar will focus on research that has grown out of work by Feldman and his colleagues on the use of a parent rating scale to identify early signs of ASD in children; the work of Koudys and her graduate students on effective strategies to help parents generalize their new skills to a variety of activities and situations with their children; and Shingleton-Smith’s master’s thesis research, in which families with at-risk children implemented virtual parent training.

Using principles of applied behaviour analysis (ABA) and natural environment teaching, parents in the studies learned effective teaching strategies, such as minimizing distractions in the environment or reinforcing target behaviours with praise and celebration whenever they try to teach their child a new skill.

“By clearing the environment of distractions, the parent can minimize sensory input and ensure their child is attending to their instruction,” says Shingleton-Smith. “Reinforcement is a key to learning, because children will continue to display skills and behaviours that result in good things for them.”

Koudys adds that Shingleton-Smith’s study is heavily focused on educating parents in a way that builds their ability to teach their child many different things.

“If we can teach parents a few core strategies that may be used to train many skills across many different situations, then we will extend the impact of the intervention well beyond the research project,” Koudys says.

For her part, Shingleton-Smith is pleased to be sharing this research on young children who are at risk for developing ASD, because she believes such work is crucial to the field.

“The current literature highlights the importance of early intervention for diagnosed children, but affected children are still waiting years before accessing therapeutic intervention,” she says.

According to Feldman, “Using an early screener to identify potential early ASD signs related to social-communication deficits and then teaching parents how to remediate them may improve the child’s development and become more widespread.”

With a few studies now completed, the research team is eager to share its results and will create a manual based on the studies to help more families benefit from the research-based training.

However, there was a moment at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic when it seemed the research might need to be put on hold.

“When planning the original model for the most recent study, we had intended for it to be conducted in-home, and we didn’t know if our complex training model would transfer well to a telehealth platform,” Shingleton-Smith says. “But our current results are showing us otherwise. I was most surprised at how I could still build quality rapport with the families through a computer screen.”

The webinar is free and open to the public, but please note that anyone interested in attending must register online in advance to obtain access to the presentation.

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