How Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) helps children with Autism

Parent-Child Interaction Therapy helps strengthen the bond between caretaker and child while increasing safety, security, a sense of calm, and self-esteem.

Parent-Child Interaction Therapy helps strengthen the bond between caretaker and child while increasing safety, security, a sense of calm, and self-esteem.

When your young child has an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) you may face challenges you never anticipated as a parent. You may receive calls from your child's school or daycare concerning their behavior, and your child may experience extreme anger outbursts and even break things on purpose, or engage in other destructive behaviors. You may also have difficulties with your child's behavior when you are out in public places—preventing you from doing some of the things you used to enjoy. This can feel overwhelming for parents, and for their children. The good news is that there is a solution for helping parents strengthen the bond with their child, help them feel to calm and secure, and even increase their positive behaviors. This solution is an evidence-based form of therapy called parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT). PCIT has been researched extensively, and shown to help improve behaviors associated with ASD in children, as well as strengthen the parent-child bond for the child with ASD and parent or caretaker.

How does PCIT work?

PCIT is done via a series of coaching sessions while the parents or caretakers and children interact in a playroom. The therapist will be observing the parent and child through a two-way mirror, or on a live video feed. The parent will wear a speaker or “bug” in his/her ear through which the therapist will be instructing the parent—equipping him/her with the skills needed to reach the desired goals of therapy which are aimed at managing the child's behavior.  PCIT is typically conducted in two stages.

During the first stage, PCIT focuses on helping parents establish warmth in their relationship with their child. Through implementing this skills of phase one, parents will be helping their children to feel more calm and secure with them, while feeling better about themselves. Stage two of PCIT focuses more on helping parents manage the more challenging aspects of their child's behavior. In doing so, PCIT helps parents to be consistent in their discipline while remaining calm, and acting with confidence. The strategies shared in phase two help children to accept their parents' limits, follow directions and rules, and behave appropriately in public places. Each stage has a list of desired goals which include:

PCIT stage one goals

  • Fewer outburst and tantrums

  • Less intense tantrums and outbursts

  • Shorter temper tantrums

  • Fewer negative attention-seeking behaviors (yelling, whining, being bossy, etc.)

  • Less frustration on behalf of parents/caretakers

  • Increased sense of calm and lower activity levels

  • Greater self-esteem

  • Increased ability to focus, greater attention span

  • Greater security, safety, warmth and healthy attachment between child and parent/caretaker

  • Increased positive social behaviors (sharing with others, asking, thanking, being polite, taking turns with others, waiting in line, raising hand before speaking, etc.)

PCIT stage two goals

  • Fewer aggressive behaviors that are less intense and shorter in duration

  • Fewer defiant behaviors

  • Fewer instances of destructive behavior

  • Learned respect for parent/caregiver's rules

  • Learned appropriate behavior in public places

  • Learned compliance with commands from parents, caregivers, teachers, etc.

  • Greater sense of calm in parents while disciplining child

  • Increased confidence in parents while conducting discipline

How many sessions of PCIT do I need?

There is no real limit the the number of sessions a person may need before reaching their desired goals for treatment through PCIT. This is because everyone is different, and each relationship is unique between both parents and children, as well as the relationship between the parent and therapist. This therapy requires consistent work and effort on behalf of the parents both in session and in the home. With regular weekly therapy visits, and due diligence where homework and staying consistent is concerned, PCIT could achieve one's desired goals withing 12-20 weeks or sessions. Since there is no limit to this form of therapy, it is not considered complete until the all goals have been achieved from both phases of therapy, and parents are able to rate their child's behavior within a normal range on a behavioral rating scale. Typically we're able to work with our clients to achieve these goals within 14-18 sessions.

PCIT has over 20 years of research showing that it really is effective at helping treat symptoms of autism in young children. Generally this form of therapy is most beneficial for children ages 2-10. This therapeutic method can be very healing for children beyond simply helping them to manage some symptoms of ASD. It can also help when a child has suffered trauma or abuse, with those who are disruptive or strong-willed, those with a short fuse or those who are moody. Parents who feel depressed, guilty, confused or overwhelmed trying to manage their child's behavior will also feel a great relief. Engaging in this form of therapy is a decision each parent should discuss with their therapist, as there is not one-size-fits-all treatment model for everyone with ASD. Do what you and your therapist feel is right for you and your child. If you'd like to learn more about PCIT, and are interested in engaging in this form of therapy in the Great Falls, MT area, we'd be happy to assist you. Feel free to contact us today to learn more about PCIT and obtaining our services at Big Sky.