Stanford Trial Shows Parents Can Learn Therapy to Help Their Children With Autism Learn to Speak

PRT therapy for autism
Courtesy of Heidi Pim

When James Pim was small, he struggled to express himself. James, now 8, has autism and was also diagnosed in early childhood with a speech delay. As a toddler, he didn’t understand how to use words to let his family know what he wanted.

When James was 3, his mom, Heidi Pim, enrolled in a Stanford trial of an autism therapy called pivotal response treatment. The trial, recently published in Pediatrics, tested whether it was helpful for parents to learn to give PRT to their kids. Children in the trial also received regular PRT treatments from a trained therapist.

PRT uses kids’ own motivations to get them talking, said autism expert Grace Gengoux, PhD, who led the research and treats children with autism at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford. For instance, when Heidi Pim was using the technique, she would pay attention to which toys James wanted to play with. If he reached for a toy car, she’d pick up the car and encourage him to say “car.” When he tried to use the word, he was rewarded with the toy.

The treatment made a big difference for James, who started speaking single words and soon progressed to longer phrases. In a recent press release, his mom explained what happened:

“He used to not be able to point to something or ask,” Pim said. “PRT really improved his vocabulary skills and communication back and forth. It helped us understand what he needs and wants.”

As the trial progressed, Pim also saw James’ frustration levels decrease. “Before, he didn’t know how to express his feelings,” she said. “When I would leave for the day and come back, he didn’t know how to say ‘Mommy, I missed you,’ so instead he would hit me or cry. That has lessened.”

James is now doing well. His mom still uses PRT methods to get him talking about his favorite topics, such as elevators.

The study showed that children in the PRT group had greater improvement in their language skills than children in a control group. The children receiving PRT also had more gains in overall social communication.

“This provides a lot of hope,” said Gengoux.

Stanford researchers are now recruiting young children with autism for a new study of how the brain changes in PRT. Interested parents can call (650) 736-1235 or e-mail for more information.

Parents and teachers who want to learn PRT techniques can attend a one-day conference being held at Stanford in September. More information about the conference is available at


2 Responses to “Stanford Trial Shows Parents Can Learn Therapy to Help Their Children With Autism Learn to Speak”

  1. Sandy Poulson

    I have a 12 yr old grandson who has autism .He is able to say some words and answers questions with one word replays. He loves going to school and swimming . Thanks for this info & time invested to help these sweet special kids.


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)