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Quantifying The Child–Therapist Interaction In ASD Intervention: An Observational Coding System

Giulio Bertamini, Arianna Bentenuto, Silvia Perzolli, Eleonora Paolizzi, Cesare Furlanello, Paola Venuti

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Background: Observational research plays an important part in developmental research due to its noninvasiveness. However, it has been hardly applied to investigate efficacy of the child–therapist interaction in the context of naturalistic developmental behavioral interventions (NDBI). In particular, the characteristics of child–therapist interplay are thought to have a significant impact in NDBIs in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Quantitative approaches may help to identify the key features of interaction during therapy and could be translated as instruments to monitor early interventions. Methods: n = 24 children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were monitored from the time of the diagnosis (T0) and after about one year of early intervention (T1). A novel observational coding system was applied to video recorded sessions of intervention to extract quantitative behavioral descriptors. We explored the coding scheme reliability together with its convergent and predictive validity. Further, we applied computational techniques to investigate changes and associations between interaction profiles and developmental outcomes. Results: Significant changes in interaction variables emerged with time, suggesting that a favorable outcome is associated with interactions characterized by increased synchrony, better therapist’s strategies to successfully engage the child and scaffold longer, more complex and engaging interchanges. Interestingly, data models linked interaction profiles, outcome measures and response trajectories. Conclusion: Current research stresses the need for process measures to understand the hows and the whys of ASD early intervention. Combining observational techniques with computational approaches may help in explaining interindividual variability. Further, it could disclose successful features of interaction associated with better response trajectories or to different ASD behavioral phenotypes that could require specific dyadic modalities.