Study Suggests Parents Benefit When They Lead Care for Autistic Children

Lindsey Sneed, PhD, BCBA-D, and Doreen Samelson, EdD, MSCP
June 12, 2023

Families raising a child with autism often face significant challenges in ensuring their child receives proper care. Recent research shows a common treatment for autistic children may offer added benefits when led by parents, rather than paraprofessionals.

Parents who lead the treatment see increased confidence in their parenting ability according to a study of 152 families with autistic children, conducted by researchers at Catalight, and published in the Journal of Social, Behavioral, and Health Sciences in August 2022. Other research has linked increased confidence – or “self-efficacy” – to lower levels of stress among parents.

“Stress is a part of every parent’s life – but studies have shown stress to be higher among parents of children with autism,” said Lindsey Sneed, PhD, BCBA-D, vice president of Clinical Excellence at Catalight and co-author of the study. “In order to provide the most effective care, it is important to understand how treatment for autism affects not just children, but also their parents.”

The researchers studied families whose children received Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), a behavior intervention that is used to help autistic children and adolescents improve their communication, behavior, and social skills. The intervention involves encouraging positive behaviors while discouraging negative behaviors. ABA is most frequently delivered by paraprofessionals who interact directly with the child receiving treatment. However, ABA can be delivered by parents who have been trained in the techniques and can support their own children in everyday situations.

Previous research has demonstrated that parent-led ABA is as effective as practitioner-led ABA for supporting children with autism. Sneed and her colleagues at Catalight wanted to understand if the impact on parents differed between the two ways of delivering the treatment.

Their study compared data from two groups of families. In one group, the parents had received training in how to deliver ABA to their own children. In the other group, the children had received ABA from paraprofessionals.

“We found that parents who lead their children’s ABA treatment show higher levels of confidence in their ability as parents compared to parents whose children received practitioner-led ABA,” said Sneed. “Other studies have suggested that higher levels of confidence among parents may contribute to lower levels of stress. In turn, our internal data suggest that autistic children are better able to make progress when their parents have lower levels of stress. ”

The Catalight team suggested a couple of factors that may contribute to the positive changes among the parent-led group.

“When children receive practitioner-led ABA, they receive the intervention for a set number of hours each week,” Sneed explained. “But when parents learn to deliver ABA, it can become their everyday style of parenting. This has two potential implications. First, the parents may feel more empowered to handle challenging situations with their child. Second, their child may receive additional exposure to ABA.”

Sneed and her colleagues also believe parent-led ABA may increase access to the intervention and offer savings for the healthcare system as a whole. Although diagnoses of autism continue to increase, there are a limited number of practitioners trained in ABA.

“Focusing our resources on training parents to lead ABA could make this care available to more families,” said Doreen Samleson, EdD, MSCP, chief clinical officer at Catalight and author on the article. “For families in underserved areas, where there aren’t many practitioners, parent-led treatment may be their best chance to ensure their child receives this proven care.”

The Catalight team says this study is part of their ongoing efforts to look beyond traditional approaches to treatment for people with autism that will address the unique needs of the individuals and families we serve, while maintaining quality outcomes.

“We’re very interested in taking a broad view of autistic people,” said Samelson. “Our goal is to achieve a better understanding of the overall wellbeing of people with developmental disabilities and their families. Drawing upon over a decade of data, we’re excited to share forthcoming studies that build upon this research.”


About the Study

The paper “Effectiveness of Parent-Led Applied Behavior Analysis at Improving Outcomes for Parents of Autistic Children” was published in the Journal of Social, Behavioral & Health Sciences on August 11, 2022. The authors are Lindsey Sneed, PhD, BCBA-D, and Doreen Samelson, EdD, MSCP, of the Catalight Research Institute.

About Catalight

Catalight breaks down barriers and biases to create a more equitable world so people with developmental disabilities can choose their path. Catalight provides access to innovative, individualized care services, clinical research and advocacy — all powered by intelligent Xolv Technology Solutions. Through the work of affiliate partners, Easterseals Hawaii and Easterseals Northern California, Catalight and its family of companies support people with developmental disabilities and their families to support them across their care journey.

The Catalight family of companies is one of the largest behavioral health networks in the nation with more than 8,000 practitioners serving 14,000 clients and families every day. Backed by more than a decade of experience and a multidisciplinary team of clinicians, we are reimagining the way people with developmental disabilities and their families experience healthcare. Catalight’s goal is to ensure that individuals and families receive timely access to evidence-based treatment, including naturalistic developmental and language-based services, applied behavior analysis, occupational therapy and speech therapy.

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