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New Treatments for Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders
By Shaun M. Eack, Ph.D.

Treatments for autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have primarily focused on early intervention and childhood treatment programs. Although these programs are quite helpful for children as they move through the educational system and provide them with programs to improve their lives, many of the services end when children reach the age of 18. Little evidence-based treatments exist to help adults with ASD as they transition and continue into adulthood.

The difficulties that ASD presents do not end at age 18. Adulthood has its own challenges as individuals attend college, build friendships, and attempt to advance careers. For many, this time is fraught with the challenges of over-stimulation, fitting in, and shifting toward independence that adult life demands. Still, scientifically-validated treatments for adults are almost completely absent.

Recent research has identified difficulties in thinking or cognition as key contributors to disability in adults with ASD. Studies have demonstrated that despite cognitive talents, many individuals experience slowing of processing speed, difficulty with planning and reduced mental stamina, combined with core impairments in social cognition. Many adults with ASD also experience difficulty in managing stress and emotions, and lack the skills needed to cope with adult life. Mental stamina and ability to quickly process information are critical to keeping up at work and school. The ability to understand social contexts and take the perspective of others provides the foundation for succeeding in interpersonal situations.

Recognizing the need for treatment in adults with ASD, the University of Pittsburgh began the Perspectives Program. This program is pioneering two new research interventions to help adults with ASD develop the cognitive, social, and emotional abilities needed to succeed in adulthood. The focus is placed particularly on psychosocial interventions, which include non-drug therapeutic strategies to target the core symptoms of autism. Cognitive Enhancement Therapy and Enriched Supportive Therapy provide support and are designed to improve cognition, social functioning, problem-solving, stress management, and skills needed to succeed in adulthood. It is hoped that by providing this evidence, such treatments will become a standard of care and routinely available to help adults maximize their strengths and lead successful and fulfilling lives.

Dr. Shaun M. Eack is Assistant Professor and Director, Perspectives Program, University of Pittsburgh. For more information, contact 1-866-647-3436 or autismrecruiter@upmc.edu or visit www.pittautismresearch.org.

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