Autism in some form is present in almost two percent of the population. Difficulties with social interaction, adapting to new situations and hypersensitivity to impressions, mean that people with autism are at a greater risk than others of suffering from certain psychiatric symptoms and stress.
Lack of treatment adapted to autism
– Since treatments that work and are adapted for people with autism are rare, the need for new treatment models is great, says Johan Pahnke, psychologist and recently defended researcher at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet.
In his doctoral dissertation, Johan Pahnke has investigated the usefulness and effect of a treatment model called ACT, acceptance and commitment therapyfor the treatment of mental illness in people with autism spectrum disorders.
Group therapy with NeuroACT
ACT is a further development of cognitive behavioral therapy, CBT, and has previously shown an effect for pain, for example. The dissertation evaluates an ACT-based group treatment program adapted for people with autism spectrum disorders, NeuroACT, which Johan Pahnke has designed.
The treatment program consists of weekly group sessions of 150 minutes, a total of 12-14 pieces. Each meeting follows a similar approach with a short mindfulness or acceptance exercise, followed by a review of homework, an introduction to the topic of the day and finally new homework and evaluation of the meeting.
Students with autism experienced reduced stress
Johan Pahnke has investigated how the ACT-based group treatment works for young people and young adults with autism who go to special school. 28 students aged 13-21 received either the ACT treatment or their regular tuition.
The treatment program proved to work well to implement in a school environment. The students who had completed the program experienced, among other things, reduced stress and reduced mental illness compared with the control group, but the treatment had no effect on anxiety and certain other problems.
ACT alleviated some problems with autism
How treatment with adapted ACT affected adults with autism in psychiatric outpatient care was also included in the study. One study included 10 people and the other 39. The results show that 90 and 85 percent of the participants completed the treatment, respectively. People who received the treatment experienced improvements regarding several measures of mental health and anxiety, but for some problems no differences were seen.
– ACT adapted to autism seems to be able to reduce stress and mental illness in adolescents and adults with autism. The treatment also helped the individuals to overcome certain central difficulties in autism. But further research is needed to further evaluate the effect in this patient group, says Johan Pahnke.
Acceptance and commitment therapy for autism spectrum disorder: evaluation of feasibility, effectiveness, and validity of a novel contextual behavioral treatment