Effects of a Parenting Intervention for Emotional and Behavioral Problems in Young Autistic Children Under Conditions of Enhanced Uncertainty: Two-Year Follow-up of a Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial Cohort (ASTAR) During the United Kingdom COVID-19 Pandemic

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Abstract

Objective
Most young autistic children display emotional and behavioral problems (EBPs). There is evidence that behavioral parenting interventions (BPIs) reduce these. The COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns can be seen as a natural experiment to test the longer-term effect of BPIs under conditions of increased uncertainty.

Method
Opportunistic follow-up (n = 49) of a pilot randomized controlled trial (RCT) cohort (n = 62 autistic children aged 6-11 years; originally randomized to a 12-week group BPI [Predictive Parenting; n = 31] or an attention control [Psychoeducation; n = 31]) was conducted during COVID-19−related lockdowns. Measures of parent-reported child irritability and parenting stress were collected at 3 time points (baseline: mean age = 6.7 years; primary endpoint: mean age = 7.1 years, ∼5 months after randomization; and COVID-19 follow-up: mean age = 8.8 years, ∼2 years after randomization). We tested the magnitude of intervention effects using point estimates of differences in child irritability and parenting stress between arms at primary endpoint and COVID-19 follow-up, covarying for baseline scores. We used area under the curve (AUC) analyses to obtain overall estimates of the average intervention effect across all 3 timepoints. Semi-structured qualitative interviews were conducted with a subsample of parents (n = 18).

Results
A small but significant intervention effect was found from baseline to COVID-19 follow-up in favor of Predictive Parenting on parent-reported child irritability (d = −0.33, 95% CI = −0.65, −0.01) and parenting stress (d = −0.31, 95% CI = −0.59, −0.03). No overall mean intervention effect for these measures as estimated by the AUC analyses (which takes into account the nonsignificant effect at primary endpoint) was found. Interview feedback on the both interventions was positive, and parents reported using strategies from Predictive Parenting during COVID-19−related restrictions.

Conclusion
This opportunistic follow-up study at a time of stress indicates the need for careful consideration of how and when to measure the effects of BPIs in autistic child populations. Future trials should consider both the most appropriate endpoint and in what context effects may be more likely to be seen.

Clinical trial registration information
Autism Spectrum Treatment and Resilience (ASTAR); https://www.isrctn.com; 91411078.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)558-567
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Volume62
Issue number5
Early online date11 Jan 2023
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - May 2023

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