Special needs

A new way to help kids with autism manage their emotions

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has long been used to treat anxiety, but a new study suggests it could help kids on the spectrum with anger, sadness and depression too.

A new way to help kids with autism manage their emotions

Photo: iStockphoto

Around 70 percent of kids with autism experience emotional challenges, including anxiety, depression, sadness and anger. And a promising new study from York University's Faculty of Health has found that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help them with emotional regulation.

Jonathan Weiss, associate professor in the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health and CIHR Chair in Autism Spectrum Disorders Treatment and Care Research, led the research, which was published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Child Psychiatry. He says,

“We can use this same intervention to improve children's skills more broadly—regardless of what emotional challenge they have; we can make them more resilient to many emotional and mental health issues.”

The study was conducted on 68 kids, aged 8 to 12 years of age, and their parents. Subjects were randomly assigned to two groups: one immediately began 10 CBT sessions and the other received treatment later. Researchers tracked how the kids’ emotions and behaviour changed before and after the therapy.

A medical professional with no prior knowledge of the groups to which each child was assigned found that 74% of the kids receiving treatment improved, compared to just 31% of the kids on the waitlist.

The researchers used spy-themed CBT, through a computer program, games and tools to help the child understand their emotions and how to manage them. Parents also participated in the therapy sessions and practiced what they were learning with their kids at home. The approach is designed to empower parents and strengthen families, so they can take the reins in helping a child with ASD thrive emotionally.

This is the first research of its kind into the potential for CBT in addressing emotional challenges beyond anxiety. The research team is now examining whether CBT can be used to improve self-regulation in kids with other neurodevelopmental conditions, such as ADHD.


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