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We systematically reviewed evidence on therapies for adolescents and young adults (ages 13 to 30) with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). We focused on the outcomes, including harms and adverse effects, of interventions addressing the core symptoms of ASD; common medical and mental health comorbidities occurring with ASD; the attainment of goals toward functional/adult independence; educational and occupational/vocational attainment; quality of life; access to health and other services; and the transitioning process (i.e., process of transitioning to greater independent functioning). We also addressed the effects of interventions on family outcomes including parent distress and satisfaction with interventions.
We searched MEDLINE® via PubMed, PsycINFO®, the Educational Resources Information Clearinghouse, and the Cumulative Index of Nursing and Allied Health Literature databases as well as the reference lists of included studies.
We included studies published in English from January 1980 to December 2011. We excluded intervention studies with fewer than 20 adolescents or young adults with ASD or fewer than 20 parents or family members of such individuals and studies lacking relevance to ASD treatment.
We identified 32 unique studies, most of which were poor quality. Five studies, mostly of medical interventions, were fair quality, and none were good. In the behavioral literature, studies of group- and computer-based interventions reported short-term gains in social skills. Two poor-quality studies of educational interventions reported some gains in vocabulary and reading. Four small studies investigated disparate interventions addressing highly specific adaptive/life skills with some positive results in studies typically of short duration. Studies of vocational interventions, all of poor quality, reported that on-the job supports may promote employment in the community. Little evidence supports the use of medical interventions in adolescents and young adults with ASD; however, antipsychotic medications and serotonin reuptake inhibitors were associated with improvements in specific challenging behaviors. Similarly, little evidence supports the use of allied health interventions including facilitated communication.
Few studies have been conducted to assess treatment approaches for adolescents and young adults with ASD, and as such there is very little evidence available for specific treatment approaches in this population; this is especially the case for evidence-based approaches to support the transition of youth with autism to adulthood. Of the small number of studies available, most were of poor quality, which may reflect the relative recency of the field. Five studies, primarily of medical interventions, had fair quality. Behavioral, educational, and adaptive/life skills studies were typically small and short term and suggested some potential improvements in social skills and functional behavior. Small studies suggested that vocational programs may increase employment success for some individuals. Few data are available to support the use of medical or allied health interventions in the adolescent and young adult population. The medical studies that have been conducted focused on the use of medications to address specific challenging behaviors, including irritability and aggression, for which effectiveness in this age group is largely unknown and inferred from studies including mostly younger children.