New parent coaching intervention aims to prime children for EIBI

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Researchers at IWK Health are developing a new form of coaching for parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that they hope will improve children’s responses to the Nova Scotia’s Early Intensive Behavioural Intervention (NS EIBI) program. The team has identified behavioural profiles that indicate which children are likely to be ‘optimal responders’ and ‘minimal responders’ to NS EIBI. They have shown in a small study that the new coaching intervention built the specific skills that should prime minimal responders to make more progress during the NS EIBI program.

Increasing numbers of children are receiving diagnoses of ASD. This brain-based condition affects children’s communication and social development, and their play and interests may differ from those of typical peers. Canadians have made large investments to provide specialized early intervention programs for this growing group of children, which can greatly improve their lives and those of their families. Nova Scotia’s program is unlike the early intervention programs in other provinces. Although it provides fewer hours of intervention than most other programs, results are comparable for the gains made by the average child. In all autism early intervention programs, some children make rapid progress in developing skills and some are “minimal responders”, whereas gains for the majority fall between these extremes.

From left to right: Dr. Isabel Smith, Dr. Dorothy Chitty and Dr. Helen Flanagan

“One of the biggest gaps in autism early intervention research is understanding which programs work best for which children and families, especially when intervention is provided in the community,” says Dr. Isabel Smith, principal investigator. “We want to discover whether we can better equip some of the most vulnerable children and their families to benefit more from Nova Scotia’s unique program for preschoolers. This would be an exciting step forward for community-based autism research.”

In the new study, parents will receive live online coaching to build specific skills for their children before starting the EIBI program. The research team will monitor children’s progress and compare the gains made in EIBI to those of similar children whose parents receive the usual form of parent coaching. The team will also talk to parents about their experiences to learn about the positive aspects of the intervention and what could improve.

“Through this project, clinicians and researchers in Nova Scotia will continue to work together to better understand key interventions that help children with autism and their families succeed,” says co-investigator Dr. Helen Flanagan. “Research has consistently been a key component of the NS EIBI program, guiding decision-making and quality care.”

“I’m truly delighted for the opportunity to do this project,” said Dr. Smith. “It’s the culmination of 15 years of research on the effectiveness of this unique province-wide program for young children with ASD, all carried out in collaboration with the providers of the program. All children with ASD and their families deserve the chance to get the greatest possible benefit from early intervention.”

“We are very excited to have this new opportunity,” says co-principal investigator Dorothy Chitty. “EIBI’s partnership with the Autism Research Centre continues to provide us with information to support our understanding of children with ASD and their families in Nova Scotia.”

Funding for the project, Amplifying Treatment Response in Early Intervention ‘Minimal Responders’ with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Virtual Parent-Coaching Intervention, was received through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Project Grant Program.

Friday, April 2, 2021 is World Autism Awareness Day.