Umbrella review summary

Update February 2023

On 16 February, 2023, Autism CRC released a new guideline based on the work in this report. The National Guideline for supporting the learning, participation, and wellbeing of autistic children and the families in Australia contains the most up-to-date information and resources for supporting autistic children, superseding the information in this report.

Go to the Guideline

Summary 2 of 2:

A review of evidence for interventions

This information is also available as a download PDF.

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There are many interventions available for children on the autism spectrum. It is important that decisions regarding the choice and use of interventions are based on the best available research evidence.

Autism CRC has completed a report, entitled Interventions for children on the autism spectrum: A synthesis of research evidence. The report includes two reviews:

  • narrative review, to provide an overview of interventions for children on the autism spectrum and their use in Australia.
  • umbrella review, to understand and summarise the evidence base for interventions for children on the autism spectrum.

The review was commissioned by the National Disability Insurance Agency and completed by Autism CRC through the work of a team that included researchers with a diverse range of professional backgrounds.

This community summary provides a brief overview of the umbrella review, which looked at the evidence base for interventions for children on the autism spectrum. A separate summary provides a brief overview of the findings of the narrative review.

What did the umbrella review examine?

The umbrella review summarised data from systematic reviews of intervention research for children on the autism spectrum, in particular those aged 0-12 years. The umbrella review focused on non-pharmacological interventions and was conducted to international best-practice standards.

To be included in the umbrella review, systematic reviews needed to include at least one study with a controlled group design, and to examine one of the following child and family outcomes:

  1. Core autism characteristics
  2. Related skills and development
  3. Education and participation
  4. Family wellbeing

The following categories of intervention were examined for their effect on these outcomes:

  1. Behavioural interventions
  2. Developmental interventions
  3. Naturalistic developmental and behavioural interventions (NDBIs)
  4. Sensory-based interventions
  5. Technology-based interventions
  6. Animal-assisted interventions
  7. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
  8. Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication-handicapped CHildren (TEACCH)
  9. Other interventions, which did not fit within any other categories.

For further information about these categories please refer to the community summary entitled, Interventions for children on the autism spectrum, and their application in the Australian community (Summary 1 of 2: Narrative review).

How many studies and participants were included in the review?

A total of 58 systematic reviews were included, which encompassed information from 1,787 unique studies. These reviews examined at least 111 intervention practices across the 9 categories of intervention. There were more than 41,000 individuals identified as study participants. It was not possible to calculate the number of unique participants due to overlapping studies included across the systematic reviews.

What was the quality of the included systematic reviews?

The systematic reviews were of variable quality, and only 4 of the 58 systematic reviews met all indicators of high methodological quality.

What was the review able to answer?

The review summarised the latest research evidence regarding which interventions are more likely to have a positive effect on which child and family outcomes. This information provides a critical evidence base that can be used to inform decision making for families, clinicians, and policy-makers. This information is presented in the summary of evidence table.

What was the review unable to answer?

While the review was able to report findings at a broad level (i.e., which interventions have a positive effect on which outcomes), there was insufficient research evidence to understand the effect of interventions at the individual level (i.e., which interventions have a positive effect on which outcomes, for which children).

Did the amount of intervention influence the effects of intervention?

There was no consistent evidence as to whether the amount of intervention children received influenced the effects of intervention.

Did the way in which interventions were delivered influence the effects of the intervention?

There was insufficient evidence to determine whether particular delivery characteristics (e.g., individual or group delivery; clinic, home or school setting) may maximise the effects of intervention and, if so, for which children. Active caregiver involvement in intervention was reported to have a similar, and at times greater, intervention effect on child outcomes compared to interventions delivered by clinical practitioners or educators alone.

Were negative effects of interventions examined?

Only 8 of the 58 systematic reviews included any information on potential harms or negative effects of interventions. Minimal negative effects of interventions were reported.

What are the implications of these findings for clinical practice?

The findings are a summary of the best available evidence of the effects of a range of interventions for children on the autism spectrum. This information can help to inform clinical and policy decision making regarding the most appropriate clinical supports for children on the autism spectrum and their families. The information also serves an important role in supporting caregivers to make informed decisions regarding the interventions they access to support their child(ren)’s learning and participation in all aspects and activities of their lives.

What are the implications of these findings for future research?

The review identifies clear gaps in knowledge that can guide future research investment. Future research priorities include an understanding of:

  • How child characteristics (e.g., age, core autism characteristics, and communication skills) may influence the effects of interventions.
  • How the way an intervention is delivered may influence the effects of interventions, and how this differs between children and families.
  • The amount of intervention that may maximise the effects of interventions on outcomes, and how this differs between children and families.
  • The costs and benefits of interventions including unintended consequences, negative impacts, and opportunity costs that can occur when time and money is spent on less effective interventions.
  • How interventions may improve broader areas of child and family wellbeing, such as quality of life.

< Read the narrative summary   View the summary of evidence table