Dr Helen Chau investigated early intervention in pre-school children with autism or developmental delay as part of her PhD research at RMIT, comparing the effectiveness of intensive, one-on-one therapy sessions with more traditional centre-based early intervention approaches.
Examining the impact of generic centre-based programs, autism-specific centre-based programs and home-based applied behaviour analysis (ABA) programs, Dr Chau found most behaviour improvement occurred in the first six months, irrespective of the early intervention approach taken.
“Children who attended either home-based or centre-based early intervention for six months demonstrated a larger reduction of autism-related behaviours than in the following six months,” she said.
“The different approaches both had benefits – centre-based programs tended to improve social competence, while home-based programs improved self-help skills.
“While more hours of intervention per week was generally associated with more effective developmental outcomes, it was not clear from my research that the home-based programs led to substantially better outcomes for children with autism, compared with centre-based intervention.”
Dr Chau’s PhD research in the School of Health Sciences included an initial survey of 50 families and 20 early intervention centres over two years, a six-year follow-up study of eight families and 20 early intervention centres, and an in-depth study that followed 12 children with autism in early intervention for a year.
“The age that children started intervention is important, with my research showing a clear association between age-of-start and developmental gains. The longitudinal study identified a trend for higher gains in IQ in younger children and higher gains in interpersonal relationships and language for older children,” she said.
Home-based, applied behaviour analysis (ABA) programs involve 40 hours a week of one-on-one therapy. ABA programs did improve behaviour but there were critical times during the intervention – 7 – 12 months and 19 – 24 months – in which extra hours did not produce more effective developmental outcomes, the research found.
A senior psychologist in Developmental Medicine at Monash Children’s Hospital, Dr Chau said her findings deepened our understanding of what may work best for children with autism, but more research was needed.
Dr Chau will celebrate her achievements with more than 6,300 other graduates at RMIT’s Graduation Ceremony at Etihad Stadium on Wednesday, 14 December.
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