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The Most Effective Autism Interventions: New Study

autism awareness and research

What works to help kids on the autism spectrum?

Today in the journal Pediatrics, a series of studies look at the effectiveness of treatments and interventions for children under age 12 on the autism spectrum.

Researchers from Vanderbilt University looked at different forms of autism support — medications, direct behavioral interventions (like the UCLA/Lovaas method, or DTT), and parent training.

The results were mixed. Some interventions, even though commonly used, lack evidence for their effectiveness. Others do hold up to testing and show significant benefits to kids with an autism diagnosis.

Here’s what works, and what doesn’t (according to the literature):

The researchers pulled data from multiple studies to look at the effectiveness of various interventions, examining results published between 2000 and 2010.

Many kids are prescribed antipsychotic medications like risperidone and aripiprazole, and these were found effective at reducing some challenging behaviors like hyperactivity, aggression, and self-injury, but (predictably) they don’t help with social skills and communication. They’re also powerful medications with significant side effects. Anti-depressants and stimulants were found to be ineffective.

The treatment approaches that showed the most promise were intensive behavioral interventions, like the UCLA/Lovaas model and the Early Start Denver Model.

Having worked with programs that provided these one-on-one direct interventions for kids, I’m not surprised to see they hold up best in studies. Children sometimes spend hours daily with a therapist working on shaping and growing certain skill sets — and these programs were the best for improving language and socials skills, especially with kids under the age of 2 (showing the importance of early intervention).

Parent training helped to reduce difficult behaviors for some families, while elements like speech and language therapy and occupational therapy were not included in the review.

The question of effective interventions for autism is a complicated one. Autism is a varied disorder and what works for one child may not be quite right for another. Still, it seems clear that intensive behavioral approaches show a lot of promise, and more resources should gather behind them.

Have you had experience with an autism treatment program, and what are your thoughts on its effectiveness? Also, what’s your take on early intervention: so many kids are not diagnosed until after two years old, and as one reader recently pointed out, at least in California, services are much more limited after a child turns 3.

Image: morguefile

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