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Last Updated on : 18th Nov, 2015

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Autism Spectrum Disorders

Autism and related disorders are often referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) because they describe a broad category of psychological disorders which include Autistic Disorder and Asperger's Disorder. Please refer to the sections below for more information about these difficulties and to learn about the best-supported treatment options.

What are Autism Spectrum Disorders?

ASDs are considered to belong to the category of pervasive developmental disorders because they begin during the first 3 years of life and have life-long implications. Although it is important to note that manifestations of ASD may vary greatly depending on the individual person, their developmental level, and a variety of other factors, the most common features are represented by the following three domains:

1. Impairments in social interaction. These may include problems in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors to regulate social interaction (e.g., making eye contact, appropriate facial expressions), failure to develop peer relationships at the appropriate developmental level, a lack of the spontaneous desire/ability to share enjoyment, interest, or achievements with other people, and difficulties understanding social or emotional reciprocity (e.g., turn-taking during conversation or play)

2. Impairments in communication. Marked and sustained impairment in communication often includes either a delay in or lack of the development of spoken language, problems with the ability to initiate or sustain conversations, stereotyped and repetitive use of language, and lack of spontaneous, make believe, or social-imitative play. In those who develop speech, often the pitch, intonation, rate, rhythm,or stress maybe abnormal                            

3. Narrow, restrictive behaviors. A child may be tend to be completely absorbed or preoccupied with one or more stereotyped or restricted patterns of interest (e.g., machines with motors). In addition, a child may rigidly perform certain behaviors, rituals, or routines (e.g., counting steps, separating food by colors), exhibit repetitive motor mannerisms (e.g., hand flapping), and present a persistent preoccupation with parts of object. 

As can be seen below, Individual Comprehensive ABA and Teacher-implemented, focused ABA+DSP have the best research support; there are several other treatments with strong support

Early Autism



Outcomes Measured

Level 1: Works Well
What does this mean?

Individual, comprehensive ABA

  • IQ or developmental level
  • Parent-rated adaptive functioning

Teacher-implemented, focused ABA+DSP

  • Joint engagement in play activities with caregivers and teachers

Level 2: Works
What does this mean?

Individual, focused ABA for augmentative and alternative communication

  • Use of picture symbols to make requests

Individual, focused ABA+DSP

  • Joint engagement in play activities with caregivers and other adults
  • Initiation of joint attention
  • Imitation
  • Language and cognitive skills

Focused DSP parent training

  • Joint engagement in play activities with caregivers and other adults
  • Communication with caregivers
  • Make-believe play

Level 3: Might Work
What does this mean?

Individual, comprehensive ABA+DSP

  • IQ or developmental level
  • Parent-rated adaptive skills

Comprehensive ABA classrooms

  • Examiner-rated ASD symptoms
  • Language
  • DQ
  • Teacher-rated social Skills

Focused ABA for spoken communication

  • Use of spoken words for joint engagement or requesting

Teacher-implemented, focused DSP

  • Initiation of joint attention with teachers
  • Engagement with objects during interactions with teachers

Focused, ABA parent-training

  • Parent-reported adaptive behavior
  • Use of utterances or words to communicate

Level 4: Experimental
What does this mean?

Comprehensive, ABA+DSP classrooms


Focused ABA+DSP parent training


Level 5: Tested and Doesn't Work
What does this mean?

None noted among reviewed studies


NOTE: ABA = Applied behavior analysis; DSP = Developmental social-pragmatic

Source: Smith T. & Iadarola, S. (2015) Evidence base update for autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology​,  44, ​897-922.




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