New research shows cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help children with autism manage not only anxiety but other emotional challenges, such as sadness and anger.
Led by Kids Brain Health researcher Dr. Jonathan Weiss, an associate professor in York University’s Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health and CIHR Chair in Autism Spectrum Disorders Treatment and Care Research, the study shows CBT can lead to significant improvements in children’s emotional regulation. It also shows – for the first time – that CBT can improve more than just anxiety in children with autism.
The randomized controlled trial was the first transdiagnostic evaluation of CBT for children with autism, meaning the protocol was not tailored to specifically for ASD.
Approximately 70 per cent of children with autism face emotional challenges – about half of among these have issues with anxiety, while 25 to 40 per cent deal with anger or depression. Often, emotional challenges are co-occurring.
“We can use this same intervention to improve children’s skills more broadly regardless of what emotional challenge they have,” says Weiss. “We can make them more resilient to many emotional and mental health issues.”
Sixty-eight children from 8 to 12 years of age and their parents, mostly mothers, participated in the study and were randomly assigned to two groups: one group receiving 10 sessions beginning right away and another group waiting to receive treatment later. Researchers tracked how their emotions and behaviour changed prior to and after treatment.
“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,” says Weiss.
A clinician who was not involved in the direct provision of the treatment and did not know if children were in the treatment or waitlist group rated 74% of children receiving treatment as improved, compared to only 31% of those in the waitlist group.
The treatment consisted of time-limited spy-themed cognitive behavioural therapy involving a computer program, games and tools to help build the child’s emotional skills. The tools help children face situations that may have previously been challenging, with greater resiliency. During the intervention, parents also practice what they are learning with their children and serve as co-therapists in the therapy sessions.
“We believe that children grow and develop and improve within the context of healthy families and this intervention aids to help the family unit more broadly to be the agent of change,” states Weiss.
Researchers are now looking at how this intervention can be used for other neurodevelopmental conditions that often overlap with autism, such as ADHD.
This study was funded by the CIHR Chair in ASD Treatment and Care Research, in partnership with Health Canada, Kids Brain Health Network, Autism Speaks Canada, the Sinneave Family Foundation, and the Canadian ASD Alliance with additional funding from York University.
The study is published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
Source: York University Press Release, April 24, 2018
Photo: Opening screen shot from the Secret Agent Society computer game, used as a component of the CBT trial.