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UT News

Everyday Interventions Show Greatest Promise for Young Children with Autism

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Woman encouraging little girl to color with crayon
Photo by Christina S. Murrey

AUSTIN, Texas — Education researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have learned that everyday interventions that parents and caregivers can provide in natural settings – such as during dinner, while playing in the neighborhood park, or in the classroom – show greatest promise for children with autism. The interventions are particularly effective for supporting language, social communication and play development.

“Naturalistic developmental behavior interventions (NDBIs) have garnered more high-quality evidence supporting their use than some traditional approaches for aiding young children with autism,” said UT College of Education Special Education Assistant Professor Micheal Sandbank, principal investigator on the multi-university research team.

The analysis was published in the journal Psychological Bulletin and marks the first meta-analysis of 130 reviewed studies of non-pharmacological interventions designed for young children with autism.

“Meta-analysis allows us to see whether interventions are more or less effective depending on different characteristics of the participants and the intervention – it helps us determine what works and for whom,” Sandbank said.

NDBIs are early intervention techniques that are implemented in natural settings by clinicians, educators and other caregivers, as opposed to more highly structured and formalized interventions. They use a number of behavioral strategies to teach developmentally appropriate skills to young children with autism. For example, an NDBI strategy for teaching a child to say the word “ball” might include playing naturally with a ball in the park and modeling the word many times. These strategies were created to be easily integrated into routine activities throughout the day to have maximum impact for the children.

Although NBDIs are not new, categorizing them as a specific type of intervention is, Sandbank said. In 2015, the developers of these interventions wrote a consensus statement declaring that they were similar approaches guided by a shared philosophy.

“This statement allowed us to consider their evidence together, rather than separately,” Sandbank said. “We also found similarly strong evidence that developmental interventions are effective for supporting social communication development in children with autism.”

The meta-analysis showed that although traditional intervention methods such as early intensive behavioral intervention have promising evidence supporting their use, more high-quality research was needed. The research also concluded that there is little evidence to support the effectiveness of several other interventions, including TEACCH (which focuses on learning strengths and preferences of the individual with autism), sensory-based interventions, animal-assisted interventions, and interventions mediated solely through technology (though approaches that integrate technology, such as high-tech augmentative and alternative communication devices, into more established interventions appear promising).

Additional research by Sandbank and the team on autism interventions has found that interventions are often more effective for kids with more language skills and are more effective for improving spoken language compared with understood language. The team is continuing to explore other findings related to how intervention effects vary based on different characteristics of the intervention, participants, or outcomes being tracked.

“The evidence regarding intervention for children on the autism spectrum has been rapidly transforming,” Sandbank said. “The last decade has seen the publication of over 100 group design studies of intervention, including at least 50 randomized controlled trials. These studies attest to the fact that access to intervention in early childhood can yield a range of positive outcomes for the children receiving it, but we have further to go to improve the quality of our evidence.”