Evidence-Based Treatments for Autism Spectrum Disorder

View all blog posts under Articles

Applied behavior analysts use evidence-based treatments to help people who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

Using science to demonstrate the efficacy of treatments in health care practice is not a new concept. The idea of evidence-based practice dates back about half a century. A physician in the United Kingdom named Dr. Archie Cochrane had expressed his concerns about the absence of science-based methods to demonstrate the effectiveness of medical treatments at the time. His ideas helped to start a movement in the medical community and, subsequently, in other practices, including among practitioners who treat patients diagnosed with autism.

Today, applied behavior analysts make decisions on the types of interventions and treatments to use with individuals diagnosed with autism using evidence-based practice. Programs such as an online Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis can help prepare students to make use of evidence-based treatment in their professional careers.

What Is Evidence-Based Treatment?

Evidence-based treatment for individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder describes therapies and intervention programs that are well-studied and peer reviewed to verify safety and effectiveness. Evidence-based treatments for autism are founded on objective scientific evidence. Non-evidence-based treatments have not been subjected to scientific inquiry and research, such as thorough investigative studies and demonstration of measurable, repeatable results.

The dangers of using non-evidence-based treatments include lack of proof as to their effectiveness and unmitigated risks associated with unproven methods. Research plays a crucial role in determining if a treatment is effective, enabling applied behavioral analysts to develop strategies for treatment based on science. For many parents of children with autism, the scientific validation of evidence-based therapies can provide peace of mind and a sense that the therapies used can help deliver favorable outcomes.

Evidence-based treatments for autism share key characteristics.

Expert Validation

Evidence-based treatments for autism pass muster with the health care community because they are scientifically verified. Health care providers can turn to peer-reviewed journals to read about scientific studies and explore the research findings leading to the development of evidence-based treatments for autism.

Proper Representative Sample

While investigations should include the use of large samples, the people participating in the study should represent a target population. For example, consider a study testing an intervention for toddlers with average IQs who have been diagnosed with autism. An adequate representative sample includes children with similar traits — not older children diagnosed with autism who have lower IQs.

Comparison Group

While a representative sample includes participants with similar characteristics, researchers use a comparison group to further strengthen the efficacy of their studies. For example, a researcher can compare participants receiving the hypothesized intervention with another group not receiving any intervention to determine the validity of the therapy.

Examples of Evidence-Based Treatments

An example of an evidence-based treatment for autism is applied behavior analysis (ABA). The findings from more than 20 studies show that ABA helps improve outcomes for people diagnosed with autism, according to Autism Speaks. The research demonstrates improvements in the areas of intellectual and social functioning, language development, and other skills essential for daily activities. Evidence-based treatments for autism are part of an applied behavior analyst’s arsenal of therapy options. Practitioners need to keep their patients’ characteristics and family dynamics in mind in their selection of treatments, as not every ABA therapy may work for a person diagnosed with autism.

Behavioral therapists have many evidence-based ABA treatments for autism that they can use with their patients, such as the following.

Discrete Trial Training and Verbal Behavior Intervention

Discrete trial training consists of several trials to teach patients a desired behavior. This highly researched teaching style classifies each lesson, breaking down the steps of the desired action. There are three possible outcomes for each trial: independent correct response, correct response with prompting, and incorrect response. Therapists reward correct responses, promoting positive reinforcement. Incorrect responses are ignored.

Using discrete trials, the application of verbal behavior intervention motivates patients to learn language by connecting words with their intended purpose. It can help address the language deficits of people diagnosed with autism. Here’s an example of how it works. Before a session, a therapist prepares an item that correlates with a word. The therapist then teaches the patient that saying the word could produce the item. For a child, the word could be “cookie.” If the child says the word, the therapist repeats it and hands over the cookie. The lesson is that a request can produce a wanted item; that is, if the request is verbalized.

Pivotal Response Training

Through the pivotal response training method, a therapist aims to improve the patient’s motivation to learn. This form of therapy also tries to develop the skills in patients that enable them to monitor their behavior and take the initiative to communicate with others. Evidence suggests that improvement in these behaviors can have a positive impact on improving social skills, communication, behavior, and learning in patients.

Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention

Experts urge parents who suspect their young child of having an autism spectrum disorder to communicate their concerns as soon as possible to the child’s pediatrician. Shortly after a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder, an applied behavior therapist can use early intensive behavioral intervention. This type of ABA therapy is for children diagnosed with autism who are five years old or younger. This evidence-based treatment for autism helps children learn communication and walking skills and teaches competencies in social interactions.

Required Skills to Conduct Evidenced-Based Treatments for Autism

Applied behavior analysts need leadership skills combined with the ability to implement effective evidence-based treatment strategies, conduct behavioral assessments, and evaluate treatment strategies. Strong communication skills also are crucial for applied behavior analysts, as their jobs involve interaction with patients, family members, and other clinicians and professionals. Competent therapists possess interpersonal skills encompassing empathy, acceptance, affective expressiveness, and the ability to focus on others. Therapists need these skills to build trust and help patients feel understood. Therapists also must be flexible enough to adjust treatment plans if a client is not making progress.

Regis College’s online Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis program can help students develop these critical skills on an advanced level. The curriculum combines research and hands-on experience to prepare students from various health science backgrounds to enter the field of applied behavior therapy or to build on previous training. Students also gain firsthand knowledge of evidence-based treatments through ABA training and practicums.

Prepare to Move Your Career Forward

Applied behavior analysis and evidence-based treatments increasingly are used to help people who have been diagnosed with autism. Learn how Regis College’s online Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis program can help build the skills needed for professional advancement.


Recommended Readings

Technology and Therapy: The Use of AAC Devices in Applied Behavior Analysis

Exploring ABA Techniques and Their Role in Treatment

How Behavioral Scientists Treat Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder Using Applied Behavior Analysis


American Psychological Association, “Qualities and Actions of Effective Therapists”

Association for Science in Autism Treatment, “Early Behavioral Intervention Is Associated with Normalized Brain Activity in Young Children with Autism”

Autism Science Foundation, Beware of Non-Evidence-Based Treatments

Autism Speaks, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Autism Speaks, Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Interactive Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery, “Archibald Cochrane (1909–1988): The Father of Evidence-Based Medicine”

Organization for Autism Research, “Use of Evidence-Based Practices”

Regis College, Defining Verbal Behavior: A Key Concept in Applied Behavior Analysis

Regis College, Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis

Young Exceptional Children, “Discrete Trial Training to Teach Alternative Communication: A Step-by-Step Guide”