Technical review of published research on applied behaviour analysis interventions for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Publication Details

New Zealand Ministries of Education and of Health requested a technical review of the evidence base on the effectiveness of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) for people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

Released on Education Counts: April 2010

Author(s): Oliver Mudford, Neville Blampied, Katrina Phillips, Dave Harper, Mary Foster, John Church, Maree Hunt, Jane Prochnow, Dennis Rose, Angela Arnold-Saritepe, Heather Peters, Celia Lie, Katrina Jeffrey, Eric Messick, Catherine Sumpter, James McEwan and Susan Wilczynski (2009), Auckland UniServices Limited.

Date Published: 15 January 2009 - Revised 16 January 2009

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Results 7. Reducing Challenging Behaviours using Reductive Methods

This category includes reductive interventions for challenging behaviours (i.e., those not included in Results 6). Challenging behaviours “can harm the individual or others OR result in damage to objects OR interfere with the expected routines in the community. Problem behaviours also may be associated with difficulties with emotional or sensory regulation” (Wilczynski & Christian, 2008, p. 56). Problem behaviours can be treated using exposure and reductive intervention packages. Exposure packages “require that the individual with ASD increasingly face anxiety-provoking situations while preventing the use of maladaptive strategies used in the past” (NSP definition). Reductive packages “rely on strategies designed to reduce problem behaviours in the absence of increasing alternate appropriate behaviours” (NSP definition).

Evidence from NSP review

The NSP review found emerging evidence that exposure packages are effective in 3 to 5 year-old autistic children. There is emerging evidence that reductive packages are effective at decreasing restricted, repetitive, non-functional patterns of behaviour (RRN) in 6 to 14 year-old autistic children.

Additional evidence from New Zealand review

The New Zealand review adds two studies to this category that were excluded from the NSP review, one because the participant was 43 years old and the other because the participant had a medical complication. Each study received an SMRS score of 2 and had beneficial effects for the participants. These data do not change the finding of emerging evidence that exposure and reductive interventions can be effective at improving problem behaviours.

Evidence from studies published from 1998 – 2007

Only eight research items from six studies were published during the 1998 – 2007 period. Seven items received an SMRS score of 2 and the other item received a score of 3. The evidence shows that the interventions were beneficial for five items and the outcome for the remaining three was unknown.

Summary of this section

This review suggests that there is emerging evidence for the effectiveness of reductive methods. The increased use of functional behavioural assessment to identify antecedents and consequences that maintain behaviour has led to new treatment methods. Current interventions seldom focus on only eliminating the problem behaviour. Thus, it is likely that these treatment packages are ‘disappearing’ rather than ‘emerging’. It is notable that very few studies using this approach were published between 1998 and 2007.