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Pivotal Response Treatment: Helping Your Children with Autism

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Updated on Aug 20, 2012

The day-to-day stress of parenting may be magnified for parents of children with autism. Too often, these parents are left feeling frustrated as they search for resources and interventions that can help make a positive impact on their child.

Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT) is an evidence-based approach to autism that focuses on motivation in core areas called "pivotal areas" to produce widespread and speedy improvement. Targeting one behavior at a time is time-consuming and expensive. PRT focuses on targeting key treatment areas, such as motivation, so that thousands of target behaviors change at the same time.

Many treatment procedures for autism sound good but lack evidence to support their effectiveness. Families may save time and money if they first turn to an approach backed by research.

“PRT is based on decades of solid research demonstrating that it is possible to produce big gains without pain in the treatment of children with autism,”said Pat Mirenda, Ph.D., a professor of educational and counseling psychology and special education at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

Here are some quick, easy steps parents of children with autism can try to begin PRT at home:

  • Motivate your child to learn. By incorporating specific positive strategies, children remain happy, interested and enthusiastic in their treatment—and want to continue learning. Parents, including those with nonverbal children, can easily incorporate motivational treatments at home. For instance, if your child likes being tickled, encourage him to say “tickle,” and then reward him by tickling him. Both verbal and nonverbal children respond extremely well and have made sweeping improvements with this type of treatment. After the initial word is mastered, such as “ball,” associated words can be added in a similar fashion, such as teaching fast vs. slow while playing with a ball.
  • Your child’s interests can be learning tools. Studies show that children with autism make greater improvements when given some choice in their activities and treatment. You can try this at home by letting your child choose topics or toys to be used during treatment, or by using naturally occurring enjoyable activities and playtime as opportunities to teach and engage your child.
  • Minimize parental stress. Incorporating PRT interventions into daily routines can helpreduce stress. Interventions for children with autism take time, and busy parents may feel guilty or anxious if they don't have a free minute to sit down with their child. By incorporating interventions for target goals into everyday activities, the goals over time will be easily accomplished throughout the day and the child will learn how to engage in desired behaviors all day long.

Children with autism have many challenges and parents are often in a race against time to get their children on a typical developmental trajectory. Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT) helps speed up the learning process for children with autism in an enjoyable way, creating enthusiastic learners and helping to alleviate the pressures and stress felt by many parents.

More information about Pivotal Response Treatment, including additional strategies to help treat children with autism, can be found in Robert and Lynn Koegels’ recently released book, The PRT Pocket Guide: Pivotal Response Treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorders, available from Brookes Publishing Co.

Robert and Lynn Koegel are the developers of Pivotal Response Treatment® (PRT®), founders of the Koegel Autism Center at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and authors of the recently released "The PRT Pocket Guide: Pivotal Response Treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorders."

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