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The Most Effective Autism Interventions: New Study

By Heather Turgeon |

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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About Heather Turgeon


Heather Turgeon

Heather Turgeon is currently writing the book The Happy Sleeper (Penguin, 2014). She's a therapist-turned-writer who authors the Science of Kids column for Babble. A northeasterner at heart, Heather lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two little ones. Read bio and latest posts → Read Heather's latest posts →

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2 thoughts on “The Most Effective Autism Interventions: New Study

  1. Nish Parikh says:

    Research from 1970 shows the positive effect of computer based animation on children with special needs but why the computer based training or computer assisted intervention (CAI) is not commonly used in the schools?
    We much change the way the intervention is getting delivered to children with special needs. If we can utilize realistic looking colorful animation I think we can offer these repetitions intensely without losing patience using computer.
    The Autism community have recognizes the importance of intensive early intervention for young children across the autism spectrum. In designing effective programs, experts encourages professionals and family members to consider the effective and systematic instructional approaches that utilize technology associated with Applied Behavior Analysis, including chaining, shaping, discrete trial format, and others.
    WebTeam Corporation in association with Eden Autism Services have developed a new method and technology (Patent Pending) to deliver individualized intervention using cutting edge touch screen kiosk system with smart video recording for monitoring and analysis.

  2. L DONNA SCIMEME says:

    I would ask that everyone who reads this comment would please go to

    As mentioned before their are different forms of therapy and ABA is not the end all be all so P L E A S E…

    Read and decide for yourself Son Rises’ beliefs.

    Thank you

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