April 30, 2018
Emotional symptoms — including anxiety, anger, or earth-shattering meltdowns — rank high among the biggest challenges faced by children with autism. At the same time, standard treatment plans typically focus more on social symptoms; they don’t often address emotional challenges head-on. Now, a small new study finds that cognitive behavioral therapy — or CBT — could be an effective option to treat these challenges, and help children with autism feel more in control of their emotions and better able to interact comfortably with the world.
The study, conducted by a team at York University, randomly assigned 68 children with autism to either 10 sessions of CBT or a “waiting list,” a condition that served as a control group. After the CBT was completed, all of the children were assessed by a clinician who was unaware of each child’s group assignment. Seventy-four percent of the children who had been assigned to the active treatment group showed significant improvement in their emotional symptoms, compared to just 31 percent of those in the control group.
The CBT sessions were multi-dimensional. Its spy-themed computer program included hands-on games and other therapeutic tools specially designed to help children with autism — who frequently struggle with communication and self-expression — face everyday situations that may have provoked an extreme emotional response in the past. The children’s parents were also involved in the sessions, learning CBT techniques from therapists and applying them with their children at home.
“We showed that children who received this treatment right away improved in their ability to manage their emotions, and in overall mental health problems, versus kids who were waiting for treatment,” said lead author Jonathan Weiss, associate professor in the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health at York University. “We can use this same intervention to improve children’s skills more broadly regardless of what emotional challenge they have. We can make them more resilient to many emotional and mental health issues.”
The study1 was published last week in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
1 Weiss, Jonathan A., et al. “A Randomized Waitlist-Controlled Trial of Cognitive Behavior Therapy to Improve Emotion Regulation in Children with Autism.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 23 Apr. 2018, doi:10.1111/jcpp.12915.