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'Help earlier with autism'

Autistic children's progress can be hindered by stressed carers, conference told. Nicola Porter reports

Highly-stressed parents of children with autism could be innocently contributing to bad behaviour and hyperactivity, new research suggests.

Academics from Swansea university carried out a series of controlled tests to find out the most effective forms of early intervention with children aged two to four. They found autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) children of parents with higher stress levels tended not to progress so well.

Professor Phil Reed, head of the university's school of human sciences, told delegates at Wales's second international conference at Cardiff's City Hall this week that he was not blaming parents.

However, parents of children with ASD had been shown to have around 50 per cent higher stress levels than others.

Teachers and family doctors did not always respond well to their anxiety because it was not something they often came across, he added.

Last week (May 5) TES Cymru reported how teaching staff in Rhondda Cynon Taf have become the first in Wales to receive specialist training in identifying pupils with autism. But Professor Reed called for counselling services and training for parents.

He said: "Our study shows they must be fully immersed and involved in the early intervention process to help them cope."

In the research, teachers in mainstream schools were asked to rate ASD pupils after a period of "applied behavioural analysis" - a one-to-one education programme, which reinforces learning and behaviours with consistent praise and rewards.

Most teachers reported their ASD pupils were generally better behaved after applied behavioural analysis. But the researchers found that pupils who had spent time in special nurseries had better relationships with their peers.

Professor Reed said both applied behavioural analysis and special nursery schools had an effect on behaviour. But individual child and parental factors should also be taken into account, as "no one size fits all".

He also questioned whether raising pupils' IQ should be the aim of early intervention, rather than gaining social skills.

The Swansea academic joined international speakers and more than 300 delegates at the conference organised by Autism Cymru.

Among them were Professor David Allen, a clinical psychologist from Bro Morgannwg NHS Trust, which serves Bridgend, Neath and Port Talbot, and John Moore, from Powys Autism and Aspergers Carer Support.

Workshops included a look at sexuality and relationships among ASD young people by educational psychologist Lynne Moxon.

Lynn Plimley and Maggie Bowen, both special educational needs specialists, also talked about the Welsh School Fora, set up to share good practice.

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