Skip navigation

Calls to Action

Research Confirms Benefit of Behavioral Interventions

November 15, 2011

A review of recent studies confirms the benefit of five types of behavioral therapies for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The authors reviewed scientific reports published since January 2010 and found that a wide range of behavioral interventions improved outcomes of people with ASD. Such scientific confirmation is crucial for securing health insurance coverage for bona fide ASD treatments.

The report appears in the December issue of the scientific journal Current Opinion in Pediatrics. It is co-authored by Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., who is also a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill; and psychologist Karen Burner, Ph.D., of the University of Washington, in Seattle.

Dawson and Burner focused on five types of behavioral therapies and found evidence of the following benefits:

·       Early intensive behavioral intervention for toddlers can produce significant gains in language and mental abilities. “Intensive” is defined as 25 to 40 hours a week of therapy over at least 2 years.

·       Briefer, targeted behavioral interventions can improve social communication in toddlers and young children. Here, benefits can be seen when interventions are delivered for at least 6 months.

·       Parent-delivered early interventions can improve parent-child interactions. However, research in this area is relatively new. More studies are needed to determine whether parent-led therapies improve children’s overall outcomes. 

·       Group programs designed to enhance social skills clearly benefit grade-schoolers and adolescents with ASD

·       Behavioral therapies can also reduce anxiety and aggression in children and adolescents with ASD. Cognitive behavioral therapy combined with social skills training is most effective for high functioning individuals, while systematic desensitization is more effective for those with significant intellectual challenges.

The authors recommend that future research build on these results by comparing treatments, determining the common “ingredients” to successful programs and better identifying which individuals will benefit from which type of therapy. Also still needed are follow-up studies that can determine how best to maintain benefits, as well as studies on how best to train therapists, teachers and parents to deliver these therapies in various community settings.

“It is gratifying to see the accumulating evidence that supports the benefits of a wide range of behavioral interventions for improving outcomes of people with autism,” Dawson says. “It is crucial that families have access to these interventions, which can improve quality of life for not only children and adults with autism, but also their families.”

Autism Speaks continues to work for state-mandated medical coverage for autism interventions. To date, its advocacy efforts have helped secure autism insurance reform laws in 29 states. To learn more about Autism Speaks advocacy efforts, please visit

Read more autism science news...