A study published in the peer reviewed journal Autism assessed the effectiveness of two group interventions for adults with ASD: cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and recreational activity. A total of 68 adults with ASD participated in the study and were stratified by gender and blindly randomized to one of the two treatment conditions. Both interventions comprised 36 weekly 3-hour sessions led by two therapists in groups of 6–8 participants. The CBT group intervention was adapted to suit adults with ASD and consisted of five elements: (a) structure, (b) group setting, (c) psycho-education (e.g. lectures and discussions on ASD and psychiatric symptoms, including learning to identify and reappraise maladaptive thoughts), (d) social training (e.g. skill building such as practicing phone calls and asking for help) and (e) cognitive behavioral techniques (e.g. setting goals, role-playing, exposure exercises and conducting behavior analysis). A manual describing the 36 individual sessions was created prior to starting the treatment. Each session followed a strict agenda: (a) introduction and presentation of the agenda of the day, (b) review of homework assignments from the previous session, (c) psycho-educative lecture and discussions on the session topic, (d) coffee break with buns or sandwiches and social interaction, (e) relaxation or mindfulness exercise, (f) discussions and exercises on the session topic, (g) distribution of homework and (h) evaluation and end of session.
The purpose of the recreational activity intervention was to facilitate social interaction and to break social isolation. The therapists did not provide any deliberate techniques, such as psycho-education, social training, or CBT. Rather, this intervention relied on structure and group setting only. During the first session, participants were asked to write down group activities they would like to engage in. The therapists created a list of the suggested activities, such as visiting museums, playing board games, cooking, restaurant visits, boating, cinema, and taking walks. Each week, participants voted for the next session’s activity.
The researchers hypothesized that both interventions would lead to improvement in primary measures of quality of life, sense of coherence, and self-esteem, as well as in the exploratory analysis of the secondary measures of psychiatric symptoms. A greater effect in the CBT intervention compared to recreational activity was also expected, due to participants in the CBT intervention receiving a wider range of psychotherapeutic techniques. Several self-report questionnaire measures were administered to the adults before and after the interventions: Quality of Life Inventory (health, relationships, employment, and living conditions), Sense of Coherence (manageability and meaningfulness in life), Rosenberg Self Esteem Scale and an exploratory analysis on measures of psychiatric health (e.g., anxiety and depression). A long-term follow-up was conducted which ranged from to 57 months after treatment termination.
Participants in both treatment conditions reported an increased quality of life at post-treatment, with no significant difference between the group CBT and group recreational activity interventions. Comorbid psychiatric symptoms, sense of coherence, and self-esteem were not affected by either intervention. CBT resulted in less attrition (drop out) than recreational activity. Participants who received CBT also rated themselves as more improved at post-treatment. At follow-up, CBT participants reported better well-being, greater understanding of their own difficulties and improved ability to express needs, compared to participants in the recreational activity intervention. This may reflect the recreation activity intervention’s focus on the intervention elements of structure and group setting, while the CBT intervention also included the elements of psycho-education, social training and CBT techniques. As a result, participants in CBT may have developed greater understanding of their own difficulties and improved ability to express needs and receive support because the objective of psycho-education and social training is to enhance these capabilities. The difference in well-being scores at follow-up may also represent greater insight gained from CBT rather than recreational activity.
Both interventions appear to be promising treatment options for adults with ASD, as they appeared to improve the participants’ quality of life. The similar efficacy of the interventions may be due to the common elements of structure and group setting. The group setting of both interventions enabled social interaction and sharing experiences. This may have promoted participants’ self-acceptance by allowing them to gain insight into both the impairments and the strengths that characterize ASD, and to recognize that others share similar challenges. CBT may be additionally beneficial in terms of increasing specific skills, greater understanding and insight, and minimizing dropout. Future studies on treatment of comorbid psychiatric symptoms in ASD should include larger samples to differentiate between adults with specific psychiatric problems in order to more effectively assess treatment effects.
Hesselmark, E., Plenty, S., & Bejerot, S. (2014). Group cognitive behavioural therapy and group recreational activity for adults with autism spectrum disorders: A preliminary randomized controlled trial. Autism, 18(6) 672–683. doi: 10.1177/1362361313493681
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, CCBT, NCSP is author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. He is also the editor of a recent volume in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools and author of the new book, Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT.