“Try this at home” isn’t enough

The effects of coaching on teaching parents reciprocal imitation training


There is an ever-growing research base for parent-implemented interventions for children with ASD, and for good reason! We know that in order for children with autism to make progress, they need high treatment intensity. The most cost-effective, naturalistic way of reaching that treatment intensity is by teaching their parents how to use intervention strategies with their children on a daily basis. The other side of this coin, however, is that we also know that treatment fidelity is an important factor in child outcomes; how closely parents adhere to the intervention will impact their child’s progress.  

This study looked at how one-on-one coaching affected parents’ ability to implement an evidence-based intervention for their child with ASD, and how their use of the strategies impacted their child’s outcomes. The intervention taught to parents was reciprocal imitation training (RIT). RIT is a naturalistic developmental behavioral intervention (NDBI; Schreibman et al., 2015) that teaches young children with ASD to spontaneously imitate within a social interaction. It uses naturalistic behavioral strategies such as following the child’s lead, modeling, prompting, and reinforcement.  

Three parents and their children with ASD participated in this study. The parents attended a training where they learned all of the ins and outs of how to do the intervention. Then they went home and video recorded their attempts to use the strategies once per day. After a few weeks, a clinician came to their home and provided coaching on the strategies once per week for 6-7 weeks. The researchers then went through the recordings and measured both the parents’ use of the strategies over time and the children’s growth in imitation skills. They found that parents were able to implement RIT with high accuracy (yay!), but only after individualized coaching support. While some of the parents improved significantly after the initial training, they all needed a therapist to come to their house and coach them in order to master the strategies. The children in the study all increased their spontaneous imitation, but only after their parents became consistent and accurate with at least some of the components of the intervention.

This study extends our understanding of the importance of coaching parents on strategies rather than relying solely on verbal instruction or suggestions. Here we have data to show how these parents needed more than just verbal instruction; they needed live feedback and training in order to use the strategies accurately and consistently, and only then did child outcomes improve. Providing parents with active coaching provides parents with the tools needed in order to support their children’s social communication. 

Note: If you are interested in learning more about RIT, you can check out this article. And here is the measure that the researchers used to evaluate the parents’ use of the strategies.


Penney, A. & Schwartz, I. (2018). Effects of coaching on the fidelity of parent implementation of reciprocal imitation training. Autism. doi: 10.1177/1362361318816688.