York University researchers discovered cognitive behavioral therapy can lead to significant improvements in children’s emotional regulation. It also shows for the first time that CBT can improve more than just anxiety.
The new research, led by Jonathan Weiss, associate professor in the Department of Psychology, is the first transdiagnostic CBT trial for children with autism, employing a randomized controlled trial.
Experts explain that approximately 70 percent of children with autism will struggle with some form of emotional challenge. About half of these children will struggle with anxiety and another 25 to 40 percent will struggle with other emotional challenges such as anger or depression.
Children with autism often have both conditions.
“We can use this same intervention to improve children’s skills more broadly regardless of what emotional challenge they have,” said Weiss. “We can make them more resilient to many emotional and mental health issues.”
Sixty-eight children from 8 to 12 years of age and their parents, mostly mothers, participated in the study. The participants were randomly assigned to two groups: one group receiving 10 sessions beginning right away and another group waiting to receive treatment later.
Researchers then tracked how their emotions and behavior changed prior to and after treatment.
“We showed that children who received this treatment right away improved in their ability to manage their emotions, and in overall mental health problems, versus kids who were waiting for treatment,” said Weiss.
A clinician who was not involved in the direct provision of the treatment and did not know if children were in the treatment or waitlist group rated 74 percent of children receiving treatment as improved, compared to only 31 percent of those in the waitlist group.
The treatment consisted of time-limited spy-themed cognitive behavioral therapy involving a computer program, games and tools to help build the child’s emotional toolkit. The tools help children face situations that may have previously been challenging, head-on and in a more supportive way.
During the intervention, parents also practice what they are learning with their children and serve as co-therapists in the therapy sessions.
Researchers are now looking at how this intervention can be used for other neurodevelopmental conditions that often overlap with autism, such as ADHD.
Source: York University