The Relation between Severity of Autism and Caregiver-Child Interaction: a Study in the Context of Relationship Development Intervention

Abstract

The aim of this study was to examine the relations between severity of children’s autism and qualities of parent-child interaction. We studied these variables at two points of time in children receiving a treatment that has a focus on social engagement, Relationship Development Intervention (RDI; Gutstein 2009). Participants were 18 parent-child dyads where the child (16 boys, 2 girls) had a diagnosis of autism and was between the ages of 2 and 12 years. The severity of the children’s autism was assessed at baseline and later in treatment using the autism severity metric of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS; Gotham et al. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39, 693–705 2009). Although the ADOS was designed as a diagnostic measure, ADOS calibrated severity scores (CSS) are increasingly used as one index of change (e.g., Locke et al. Autism, 18, 370–375 2014). Videotapes of parent-child interaction at baseline and later in treatment were rated by independent coders, for a) overall qualities of interpersonal relatedness using the Dyadic Coding Scales (DCS; Humber and Moss The American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 75, 128-141 2005), and b) second-by-second parent-child Co-Regulation and Intersubjective Engagement (processes targeted by the treatment approach of RDI). Severity of autism was correlated with lower quality of parent-child interaction. Ratings on each of these variables changed over the course of treatment, and there was evidence that improvement was specifically related to the quality of parent-child interaction at baseline.

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Acknowledgments

We gratefully acknowledge The Foundation for Autism Research and Remediation (FARR), which provided partial funding for the project, via a grant entitled ‘Change in Autism’ awarded to Professor R. Peter Hobson and Dr. Jessica Hobson. FARR was established by the developers of RDI to provide research funding for studies of children with autism and their families. Portions of the project were completed by the second author of the study, Laura Tarver, in order to fulfil her requirements for an MSc in Language Sciences at the University College, London. We thank the families and clinicians who agreed to take part in this study. We appreciate the tremendous contributions to this project made by our coders: Agnese Ballarani, Kyratso Bargiota, Marina Mestres Martorell, and Sara Panteleone. We thank the Tavistock Clinic, London for supporting this work and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford, for the sabbatical during which the study was prepared for dissemination. There are no conflicts of interest to report.

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Hobson, J.A., Tarver, L., Beurkens, N. et al. The Relation between Severity of Autism and Caregiver-Child Interaction: a Study in the Context of Relationship Development Intervention. J Abnorm Child Psychol 44, 745–755 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-015-0067-y

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Keywords

  • Autism
  • Joint attention
  • Parent-child interaction
  • Relationship Development Intervention (RDI)