Review of interventions for autistic adults finds lack of evidence-based treatments

June 10, 2020
Dr. Stephen Shore, Ed.D., co-authored a recent review of health outcomes research about autistic adults
Dr. Stephen Shore, Ed.D.,
co-authored a recent review
of health outcomes research
about autistic adults

NEW YORK -- Despite research clearly indicating that autistic adults have poorer health outcomes than typically developing adults, a recent review of related studies found that very few treatments have been studied to effectively address the specific needs of this group. The review also found that priorities of autistic adults were overlooked in the existing research. 

In a review published May 1 in the journal Autism, only 19 studies of 778 initially considered met the criteria to be considered evidence for interventions for autistic adults: publication in a peer-reviewed journal, tested an intervention, measured a change in health outcome and/or included at least 50 percent autistic adults in the study group. None of the studies indicated methodology or previous literature that outlined the priorities of autistic adults in terms of health outcomes. This indicates a significant need to focus on identifying evidence-based interventions for adults on the spectrum, starting with identifying priorities of autistic adults.  

“Autistic adult health outcomes research tends to focus on co-occurring conditions, but health outcomes include everything from physical conditions to social and emotional well-being,” said Stephen Shore, Ed.D., one of the study’s authors. Dr. Shore is a professor of special education at Adelphi University and a member of the Autism Speaks Board of Directors as well as the Medical and Scientific Advisory Committee.  

“We found in our review that researchers aren’t asking the question about which of these outcomes matter most to autistic adults, and far more research is needed to recommend ways to support health as they age.” 

Research into autistic adult health has identified several health outcomes, such as early death, higher rates of psychiatric emergency department use and fewer cancer preventive cancer screenings, compared to typical adults. About 2 percent of autism research funding goes to transition to adulthood or adult autism research, according to the federal Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee. 

Of the studies reviewed, two interventions showed some evidence of supporting better psychiatric health outcomes.  

Cognitive behavior therapy and mindfulness-based interventions, both common evidence-based interventions for depression and anxiety in the wider population, showed a similar improvement for these symptoms in autistic adults. To be considered an evidence-based treatment for adults with autism, further studies specific to this population are needed to confirm initial findings. 

The current study called for further research into interventions to support a wider range of health outcomes, including quality of life, as well as the effects of common medical interventions, including those that address health in older autistic adults. 

“This publication is an opportunity to take stock of where the research is and where it needs to go in terms of providing solutions for autistic adults,” said Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Thomas W. Frazier, Ph.D. “Researchers and their funders, including Autism Speaks, must make adult health outcomes a priority to support the more than 5.6 million autistic adults in the U.S.” 

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