Improving Language through Play

Autism language problems were improved for some children when mothers had play training

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Early interventions for autism spectrum disorders (ASD) can be helpful for children. Some programs train parents as a way to help children.

Recent research trained parents in specific play skills – focusing on teaching mothers to have high quality interactions during play.

For children who had severe language delays, the intervention improved their language skills one year later.

"Ask your psychiatrist about activities for your child."

The study, led by Michael Siller, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Hunter College in New York, enrolled 70 children who were under the age of 6 with their mothers.

Some mother-child pairs were randomly assigned to receive the Family Playtime Intervention (FPI) specialized intervention. The mothers not assigned to the intervention received three sessions of educational information about autism and interactive play.

FPI uses 12 in-home sessions to build skills in both mother and child. Each session lasted about 90 minutes, and followed a manual designed to build skills over each session.

FPI starts with information to help the mother understand how the child thinks and plays. It then works with the mother create play goals for the child.

The program continues with exercises about rules of engagement (who gets to choose toys, who decides how to play with them) and skill building to reach goals of play that were set earlier in the program.

All steps of FPI were designed to help a mother interact with her child in a more balanced way and to increase coordination between them during play.

All mother-child pairs in the study were assessed at the start of the study, just after the program ended, and one year later. The child’s language development was tested using standard measures. Video recordings were used to rate the quality of mother-child interactions during play.

Children whose language skills were more severely delayed showed improved language skills when their mother received FPI. Children whose language skills were similar to that of a one-year-old at the start of the study showed a gain in language development equal to about a three month gain.

The authors noted that the language gains were significant, but was not be big enough to make them catch up to non-ASD peers.

FPI also increased parental responsive behaviors by the end of the program. When scoring the videos, mothers who had FPI initiated more verbal interactions during play and responded more often to verbal and non-verbal cues of the child.

The authors wrote, “The current study did not provide any evidence to suggest that children’s long-term language gains can be attributed to short-term gains in responsive parental communication.”

The intervention changed parent behaviors and language skills for some of the people in the study, but more research is needed to understand who will best benefit from this type of intervention.

This study was published July 24 in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. The study was funded by grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the M.I.N.D. Institute Research Program, and PSC-CUNY.

Conflict of interest information was not reported.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
August 1, 2012
Last Updated:
April 16, 2013