According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 88 American children have an autism spectrum disorder – developmental disabilities characterized by delays in social interaction and communication, cognitive difficulties and repetitive behaviors.
Autism appears in children by three years of age and typical treatments include medicine and therapy. Now there’s a new meta-analysis investigating behavioral interventions to treat autistic children.
The analysis looks at 33 systematic reviews and 68 intervention studies of autistic children. The review – published earlier this month in the journal Pediatrics – found that some intervention programs did help improve behavioral symptoms.
Intensive behavior programs – which include therapy for at least 25 hours a week – were found to be moderately effective at improving core deficits such as adapting to change, decision-making and memory. The evidence showed these programs were particularly effective when they began shortly after diagnosis, and when they address the concerns of the family and offer opportunities for them to participate.
The authors agreed that there is plenty of room for improvement. They suggested that comprehensive therapy programs need to address even more deficits including social communication, language, play skills, aggression and preoccupation with rituals.
They also identified gaps in our knowledge about autism therapies. Researchers need to
– Develop uniform outcome measures so that future systematic reviews can more easily pool data.
– Conduct more studies on pre-verbal or non-verbal children to determine the interventions that help them best.
– Assess how individual, specific therapies impact core deficits such as IQ and communication skills.
– Collect more evidence to determine the most effective dose and duration of therapies.
All in all, the take home message is that behavioral therapy does help children diagnosed with autism, but that researchers have a long way to go to ensure that interventions are doing all that they can to help autistic children develop and thrive.