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Introduction to Interventions for Autism

What is an intervention?

Child concentrating An intervention is any action (such as a treatment, a therapy or the provision of a service) which is designed to help people on the autism spectum.

There are thousands of different interventions designed to help autistic people, including applied behavioural analysis, drama therapy, gluten-free diet, Lego therapy, sensory integration training, snake oil, swimming with dolphins, and taking vitamin supplements.

This website provides an Alphabetic list of interventions, a classification of the different Types of autism interventions, treatments and therapies, as well as Our Evaluations of Autism Interventions, Treatments and Therapies. We hope to evaluate more and more interventions as resources allow.


What are interventions supposed to do?

It depends on who you ask. Different people make different claims for different interventions. But, in general, most interventions are designed to do one or more of the following things:

  • cure autism.
  • increase adaptive behaviours, such as social skills, communication skills or imaginative behaviours.
  • reduce or eliminate problematic behaviours, such as self-harm or aggression towards others.
  • treat co-existing conditions, such as epilepsy or gastro-intestinal problems.
  • improve or enhance the quality of life of the person with autism.

Of course some people claim that some interventions can do all of these things.

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Which interventions do people actually use?

This depends on a range of factors, including the needs of the person on the autism spectrum, as well as the availability and cost of each intervention. The most commonly used interventions in the UK include

  • Diets, such as the gluten-free, casein-free diet
  • Behavioural approaches, such as the Lovaas method
  • Medication, such as antipsychotics
  • Augmentative communication, such as PECS
  • Sensory integration techniques
  • Specialist education e.g. schools for children with autism
  • Speech and language therapy

In practice most people use a combination of these interventions.

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Which interventions actually work?

Most interventions appear to produce benefits of some kind, otherwise people wouldn't use them. Unfortunately in some cases these apparent benefits are short-term, insignificant or illusory. And any benefits may be outweighed by the financial and emotional costs of the intervention, or the dangers inherent in some therapies.

At present there is very little scientifically valid research into the effectiveness of most interventions designed to help people on the autism spectrum. However we do know that some interventions are more promising than others.

For example, there is strong scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of interventions such as early intensive behavioural intervention for young children. And there is equally strong scientific evidence to show that some interventions, such as facilitated communication, are not effective.

Having said all that, each person with autism is different and what works for one person may not work for another.

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Why is it difficult to evaluate interventions?

There are a number of reasons why it is difficult to evaluate interventions. For example

  • It can be difficult and time consuming to set up properly controlled scientific studies.
  • The realities of family life may interfere with the research
  • The researchers may have commercial interests in proving the success of the intervention
  • The people involved in the trial of an intervention may really, really want it to work - so much so that they see significant improvements where there are none
  • What works for one person with autism may not work for another.
  • An individual's symptoms may 'spontaneously' improve over time, irrespective of which intervention is used

Even supposedly scientific studies may be flawed, leading to biased and inaccurate findings.

If you are trying to make the decision about which interventions to use, you may find it useful to look at some key tools, including some principles and key questions.

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Why does it matter if people use the wrong interventions?

  • Some interventions may be harmful. For example, the machine used in auditory integration training can damage someone's hearing because of the excessive volume or sound pressure produced.
  • Ineffective therapies waste parents' time and resources. For example there is strong scientific evidence to show that secretin is not an effective treatment for autism. But that doesn't stop some therapists charging thousands of pounds for this treatment.
  • Ineffective treatments may delay the use of effective treatments, which may compromise the child's outcome.
  • Parents and others may become discouraged from trying effective therapies if their hopes are dashed by ineffective therapies.
  • Contact with commercial providers advocating one ineffective treatment can expose parents to further unvalidated, harmful or expensive therapies. For example, we hear horror stories of parents being told they must buy a range of therapies if they want their child to be cured and then being billed for thousands and thousands of pounds.

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So where do I find information I can trust?

It can be really difficult to find high-quality information that is accurate, up-to-date and reliable. When you do find the right information, it may be written in scientific gobbledygook that you can't understand. That is one reason this site has a Glossary of terms on autism.

The Research Autism website is one of the few which aims to provide clear and scientifically valid information about the most commonly used interventions.

Please see Our Evaluations of Autism Interventions, Treatments and Therapies for more information about those interventions.

If you can't find scientifically valid information about a specific intervention please contact us and we will try to find that information for you.

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What if I want immediate, practical help?

We regret that because we are a small research charity we cannot provide advice to individuals on which interventions they should or should not use.

You can find a range of organisations which may be able to help in the Resources on Autism section of this website.

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Related Pages

Related Glossaries


Quick link:
http://www.researchautism.net/introduction-autism-interventions
Updated
25 Oct 2017