Saturday, 3 December 2016

Parent-mediated interventions for young children with autism meta-analysed

Do not mess with  Lois.
Today I'm posting on the topic of the paper by Rose Nevill and colleagues [1] concluding: "that while most outcome domains of parent-delivered intervention are associated with small effects, the quality of research is improving."

Parent-mediated interventions in relation to autism have been covered on this blog quite recently (see here) accompanied by that 'super-parenting' headline fail. Such approaches work on the idea that helping parents to "develop strategies for interaction and management of behaviour" [2] might be one route of early intervention when it comes to autism. The research road has however not been smooth when it comes to this class of intervention (see here) and despite some positives (see here) has perhaps not been the overwhelming success that many had hoped for.

Nevill and colleagues reviewed 19 trials of parent-mediated interventions for autism ("randomized clinical trials") looking at various outcomes in relation to core symptoms of autism and aspects such as communication and cognitive functions. The results kinda reiterate what we already know that so far, parent-mediated interventions aren't really cutting the statistical mustard when it comes to outcomes and important statistics related to effect sizes. Indeed, the [weighted] Hedge's g statistics produced by the authors on the cumulative data in this area can, at best, be described as 'modest' (and I mean at best). As a comparison, have a look at the Hedge's g stats produced by a meta-analysis of the placebo response when it came to autism [3]: "a moderate effect size for overall placebo response (Hedges' g=0.45, 95% confidence interval (0.34-0.56), P<0.001)" (based on "25 data sets (1315 participants)"). This bearing in mind that the parent-mediated intervention trials don't usually include a placebo condition (and indeed, typically don't even blind - how could you?)

I don't want to poo-poo all of this area of autism science because it may still be pretty important. A few things do however worry me about the attention here based on the ideas that parent-child interactions are somehow the be-all-and-end-all of autism (also harking back to the bad 'ole days) and that in these times of continued cost-savings and austerity, parents are being expected to carry out the same services as other professionals. On that first point focused on parent-child interactions, I've always been a little cautious about what this means. Certainly in light of the primary focus on this blog, looking at genetics, epigenetics and biochemistry when it comes to autism, parent-mediated interventions are to be seen as a reactive strategy attempting to deal with 'symptoms' not necessarily causes. Yes, I know 'symptoms' are what parents and other family members see and deal with day in day out, but I'm wondering how successful parent-mediated intervention would be if used in the context of autism secondary to an inborn error of metabolism for example? Surely it makes more sense to spend a little more time ruling out some of the potential reasons why autism or particular autistic features might come about (i.e. screening - see here and see here for some other examples) rather than universally providing a parent-mediated intervention manual and hoping for the best? I might also add that a greater recognition that among 'the autisms' (see here) there may be some important waxing and waning of presentation(s) (see here) potentially influenced by things like the presence of comorbidity too reiterates that every person is an individual and set manuals on parent-child interactions don't necessarily cover all that heterogeneity. And there's also the suggestion that some parent-mediated intervention options are also seemingly failing when it comes to important comorbidities such as anxiety (knowing how disabling these can be) as being something else that needs to be kept in mind.

We'll have to see how this area develops further but for now, I don't think anyone can seriously say the existing research on this topic has shown anything like the successes that everyone hoped for. And whilst we should celebrate the fact that "the quality of research is improving" I'm not sure one can blame the limited success of such an approach on previous poor quality research.

To close, today is a really, really big day for some of my brood who have their 1st Dan black belt grading. After several years of training, hard work and effort pertinent to their voyages through Shotokan karate it all comes down to examination this evening. Thanks and credit need to go to their Sensei for all their efforts in getting them this far, as well as a certain practitioner who is Shotokan YouTube royalty. Whoever you are, thank you.


[1] Nevill RE. et al. Meta-analysis of parent-mediated interventions for young children with autism spectrum disorder. Autism. 2016. Nov 14.

[2] Oono IP. et al. Parent-mediated early intervention for young children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Apr 30;(4):CD009774.

[3] Masi A. et al. Predictors of placebo response in pharmacological and dietary supplement treatment trials in pediatric autism spectrum disorder: a meta-analysis. Transl Psychiatry. 2015 Sep 22;5:e640.

---------- Nevill, R., Lecavalier, L., & Stratis, E. (2016). Meta-analysis of parent-mediated interventions for young children with autism spectrum disorder Autism DOI: 10.1177/1362361316677838