Change in autism core symptoms with intervention

Zachor, D. A., Ben-Itzchak, E., Rabinovich, A. L., & Lahat, E. (2007). Change in autism core symptoms with intervention. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 1, 304-317.

Reviewed by Kathleen Moran, MA
Caldwell College

Why research this topic?

Both parents and therapists are forced to consider many different treatments for a child with autism, and finding the right one may be critical. This study compared two treatment approaches: Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and the Eclectic-Developmental (ED) approach. The ABA approach used in the investigation involved 35 hours per week of intervention that focused on one-to-one teaching in small steps, using repeated opportunities and systematic reinforcement, with the aim of addressing the main deficits in autism. ED was based primarily on developmental interventions such as the Developmental Individual-Difference Relationship (DIR) and focused on teaching imitation and social skills. It also included a variety of other individual therapies (speech, occupational, etc.) and small group instruction. The amount of intervention varied across children in ED.

What did the researcher do?

Thirty-nine preschool-age children with autism participated in the current study, including 19 in ED and 20 in ABA. Children were tested on measures of cognitive ability and autism severity when they entered the study and again after one year of treatment.

What did the researchers find?

Although there were no significant differences between the groups prior to intervention, there were major differences after treatment: the ABA group made greater gains in cognitive ability and reductions in autism severity than the ED group. This pattern was found both for children who were higher functioning at pretreatment (IQ above 80) and those who were lower functioning at pretreatment (IQ below 80).

What are the strengths and limitations of the study? What do the results mean?

Changes in cognitive ability and autism symptoms were more apparent with ABA treatment then ED. Although many previous studies have shown that early intensive ABA improves cognitive skills, this was one of the first to show that this intervention also reduces autism severity. The study also confirms findings from previous studies indicating that ABA may produce more improvement than eclectic approaches. However, the study had a number of limitations. For example, cognitive ability was assessed for only some children in the study. Also, the amount of intervention in the ED group was not clearly specified but was probably less than in the ABA group.