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Research Review - Final – Aug. 6, 2014

Therapies for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder: Behavioral Interventions Update

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Structured Abstract

Objective

We updated a prior systematic review of interventions for children (0–12 years) with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), focusing on recent studies of behavioral interventions.

Data sources

We searched the MEDLINE® (PubMed®), PsycInfo, and Educational Resources Information Clearinghouse (ERIC) databases as well as the reference lists of included studies and recent systematic reviews. We conducted the search in December 2013.

Methods

We included comparative studies (with treatment and comparison groups) of behavioral interventions with at least 10 participants with ASD in the update, and made our conclusions based on the cumulative comparative evidence across the original report and update. Two investigators independently screened studies against predetermined inclusion criteria and independently rated the quality of included studies.

Results

We included 65 unique studies comprising 48 randomized trials and 17 nonrandomized comparative studies (19 good, 39 fair, and 7 poor quality) published since the prior review. The quality of studies improved compared with that reported in the earlier review; however, our assessment of the strength of evidence (SOE), our confidence in the stability of effects of interventions in the face of future research, remains low for many intervention/outcome pairs. Early intervention based on high-intensity applied behavior analysis over extended timeframes was associated with improvement in cognitive functioning and language skills (moderate SOE for improvements in both outcomes) relative to community controls in some groups of young children. The magnitude of these effects varied across studies, potentially reflecting poorly understood modifying characteristics related to subgroups of children. Early intensive parent training programs modified parenting behaviors during interactions; however, data were more limited about their ability to improve developmental skills beyond language gains for some children (low SOE for positive effects on language). Social skills interventions varied in scope and intensity and showed some positive effects on social behaviors for older children in small studies (low SOE for positive effects on social skills). Studies of play/interaction-based approaches reported that joint attention interventions may demonstrate positive outcomes in preschool-age children with ASD when targeting joint attention skills (moderate SOE); data on the effects of such interventions in other areas were limited (low SOE for positive effects on play skills, language, social skills). Studies examining the effects of cognitive behavioral therapy on anxiety reported positive results in older children with IQs ≥70 (high SOE for improvements in anxiety in this population). Smaller short-term studies of other interventions reported some improvements in areas such as sleep and communication, but data were too sparse to assess their overall effectiveness.

Conclusions

A growing evidence base suggests that behavioral interventions can be associated with positive outcomes for children with ASD. Despite improvements in the quality of the included literature, a need remains for studies of interventions across settings and continued improvements in methodologic rigor. Substantial scientific advances are needed to enhance our understanding of which interventions are most effective for specific children with ASD and to isolate elements or components of interventions most associated with effects.