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Little Evidence on Value of Treatments for Autism: Report

TUESDAY, Aug. 28 (HealthDay News) -- There is just not enough evidence to determine whether or not current treatments actually help adolescents and young adults with autism, researchers report.

"Overall, there is very little evidence in all areas of care for adolescents and young adults with autism, and it is urgent that more rigorous studies be developed and conducted," report senior author Melissa McPheeters, director of Vanderbilt University's Evidence-Based Practice Center, said in a university news release.

Her team reviewed 32 studies published between 1980 and 2011 on therapies for people aged 13 to 30 with autism.

They found some evidence that treatments might boost social skills and educational outcomes such as vocabulary and reading, but the studies were generally small and had limited follow-up.

There was little evidence supporting the use of drug therapy for people with autism in these age groups. The most consistent findings showed that antipsychotic medications might lessen problem behaviors such as irritability and aggression. However, harmful side effects linked to these medications included weight gain and sedation.

Only five studies tested interventions involving work skills training for young people with autism. All of the studies suggested that vocational interventions may be effective for some adolescents and young adults with autism, but the studies also had significant flaws that raised questions about their conclusions.

One expert said the paucity of data on this topic is disheartening.

"Only five studies that address vocation skills were published in the last three decades, and all were of poor quality," said Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer at the advocacy group Autism Speaks. However, "the meager evidence that exists suggests that vocational interventions improve rates of employment, reduce autism symptoms, and [improve] quality of life."

She said more and better data is needed. "Given the huge number of adolescents [with autism] who will be entering adulthood in the next several years, it is crucial that we address this knowledge gap," Dawson said. "There is a great need for research to identify the most effective strategies for helping young people with autism navigate the transition to adulthood successfully."

Autism rates are rising, but much remains to be discovered about treatments, added the researchers, whose review was published by the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. The findings about vocational interventions were published separately in the Aug. 27 issue of the journal Pediatrics.

"There are growing numbers of adolescents and adults with autism in need of substantial support. Without a stronger evidence base, it is very hard to know which interventions will yield the most meaningful outcomes for individuals with autism and their families," Zachary Warren, director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center's Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders, said in the news release.

More information

Autism Speaks has more about autism treatments.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCES: Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., chief science officer, Autism Speaks; Vanderbilt University, news release, Aug. 27, 2012

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