New therapy being evaluated to treat autism

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Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) is being evaluated as a new treatment for autistic individuals - in both a school and a psychiatric outpatient setting.

The therapy, which was explored in a doctoral thesis written by Johan Pahnke, PhD, psychologist in the department of clinical neuroscience at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, studied the usefulness and effectiveness of the psychological treatment model for reducing emotional stress in autistic adolescents and young adults in a school setting as well as the feasibility and effectiveness of ACT in a psychiatric outpatient care environment. ACT is a further development of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which has shown success in reducing stress. Pahnke’s thesis evaluated an ACT-based group treatment program adapted for autistic young adults called NeuroACT.

The treatment program consisted of weekly group sessions that last 150 minutes, with 12 to 14 sessions. Each session follows a similar set-up with a short mindfulness or acceptance exercise, followed by a review of homework assignments, an introduction to the session's theme, new homework assignments, and an evaluation of the group meeting.

Twenty-eight students aged 13 to 21 years received ACT treatment or regular schooling. According to the thesis, the treatment program worked well when implemented in a school environment. The results found students who had completed the program experienced reduced stress, depression, and anger, compared to the control group in a regular school setting. However, the treatment did not impact the students’ anxiety and other issues.

The thesis also examined the treatment for autistic adults in psychiatric outpatient care. One study included 10 adults aged 25 to 65 years and the other study evaluated 39 adults aged 21 to 72. The results showed that most participants underwent the whole treatment and were satisfied. In addition, those who received the treatment experienced improvements in stress and several mental health issues. However, for some problems, no differences were seen.

"Because treatments that work and are adapted to autistic individuals are rare, there is a considerable need for new treatment models," Pahnke said in a statement. “ACT adapted to autism seems to be able to reduce stress and improve wellbeing in adolescents and adults with autism. The treatment also appears to help the participants overcome some key autistic difficulties. However, more research is needed to evaluate the effect of ACT in autistic individuals.”