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Review Shows Big Increase in Science Backing Behavioral Therapy

Recent years have brought a dramatic increase in the scientific evidence backing the effectiveness of intensive behavioral therapy for children affected by autism, according to a new report to the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality.

“We are finding more solid evidence, based on higher quality studies, that these early intensive behavioral interventions can be effective for young children on the autism spectrum, especially related to their cognitive and language skills,” says lead author Amy Weitlauf, a clinical psychologist with the Vanderbilt [University] Kennedy Center. (The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center is part of the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network.)

Dr. Weitlauf and her co-authors are members of the Vanderbilt Evidence-based Practice Center. It's one of twelve federally funded centers conducting scientific reviews to help patients, clinicians and policy makers make informed decisions about healthcare services.

Their review updates a 2011 report that noted gaps in the research needed to assure the effectiveness of often-costly autism therapy programs. In particular, they examine new scientific findings on the effectiveness of intensive early intervention therapies based on applied behavioral analysis (ABA). Their update includes 65 studies published since the 2011 report.

“This review speaks to the clear consensus on intensive early intervention,” comments developmental pediatrician Paul Wang, Autism Speaks senior vice president for medical research. “Kids with autism clearly benefit from these behavioral interventions, and we need to make sure that they’re provided.

“In the long run,” Dr. Wang adds, “intensive early intervention saves money by promoting greater independence later in life. Autism Speaks continues to sponsor research to show how we can further enhance intervention methods and their cost-benefits.” 

Lorri Unumb, Autism Speaks vice president for state government affairs, notes the importance of the new report for advocacy efforts. “The new Vanderbilt study further reinforces the overwhelming record of evidence supporting the efficacy of Applied Behavior Analysis in treating children with autism,” she says. “In study after study, ABA continues to be confirmed as a beneficial intervention that can vastly improve the lives of kids with autism. And with each study, insurance industry claims that ABA is somehow ‘experimental’ become ever more untenable.”

More research needed to enhance benefits
At the same time, the experts agree, response to behavioral therapy varies from child to child. More research is needed to better tailor strategies and the length and frequency of therapy sessions to best meet the needs of each child affected by autism.

Read the full report here.