Examining a stepped-care telehealth program for parents of young children with autism: a proof-of-concept trial

Allison L. Wainer, Zachary E. Arnold, Caroline Leonczyk, Latha Valluripalli Soorya

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Background: Intervention during the first years of life for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may have the strongest impact on long-term brain development and functioning. Yet, barriers such as a shortage of trained professionals contribute to significant delays in service. The goal of this proof-of-concept study was to explore strategies that support timely and equitable deployment of ASD-specific interventions. Methods: This 15-week, randomized proof-of-concept study explored the acceptability of a digital parent mediated intervention online reciprocal imitation training (RIT; a naturalistic developmental behavioral intervention) and compared it to a treatment as usual (TAU) control on parent and child outcomes. Eligible children were between 18 and 60 months, met the cutoff for ASD on the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule-2nd Edition and demonstrate significant social imitation deficits. Primary outcomes include the acceptability of RIT (Scale of Treatment Perceptions) and the feasibility of the Online RIT digital intervention (online RIT attributes). Secondary outcomes included parent fidelity (RIT parent fidelity form) and parental self-efficacy (Early Intervention Parenting Self-Efficacy Scale). Exploratory outcome measures included child social communication (Social Communication Checklist), child imitation skills (Unstructured Imitation Assessment), and family quality of life (Beach Center Family Quality of Life Scale). Results: Twenty participants were randomized in a 1:1 fashion. The acceptability and feasibility of RIT and the Online RIT digital intervention were rated highly. Among the secondary outcomes, there were significant group differences in parent fidelity (p <.001) and self-efficacy (p =.029). On exploratory outcomes, there were group differences in child social communication (p =.048). There were no significant group differences in imitation ability (p =.05) or family quality of life (p =.22). Limitations: There are several limitations with this study, including the small sample size as well as lack of data on enactment and website engagement. This study was not able to address questions related to which variables predict program engagement and treatment response, which will be critical for determining which families may benefit from such a stepped-care delivery model. Conclusions: Overall, the Online RIT program delivered in a stepped-care format shows strong acceptability and holds promise as an innovative delivery model. Trial registration ClinicalTrials.gov, NCT04467073. Registered 10 July 2020- Retrospectively registered, https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT04467073

Original languageEnglish
Article number32
JournalMolecular Autism
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Digital intervention
  • Online RIT
  • Reciprocal imitation training
  • Stepped-care
  • Telehealth


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