A New Form of Therapy for Autistic Individuals Can Improve Overall Well-Being

The study found that in comparison to the control group, students who had completed the program reported less stress, sadness, and anger.

Evaluating a new method of therapy for autistic individuals

The use of Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder was evaluated in a Ph.D. thesis at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. The findings suggest that the therapy may be used in both a school setting and psychiatric outpatient care and that it can influence factors like perceived stress and much more.

Nearly 2% of the population has autism. Due to their issues with social interaction, difficulty adjusting to new environments, and hypersensitivity, autistic people are more likely than others to experience stress and certain psychiatric symptoms.

A considerable need

Johan Pahnke at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience. Credit: Jessica Lund

“Because treatments that work and are adapted to autistic individuals are rare, there is a considerable need for new treatment models,” says Johan Pahnke, a psychologist who recently received his doctorate at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet.

In his doctoral thesis, Johan Pahnke investigated the usefulness and effectiveness of a psychological treatment model called ACT for reducing emotional distress in autistic individuals.

ACT is a further development of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and has previously shown efficacy, for example, in reducing stress. The thesis evaluated an ACT-based group treatment program adapted for autistic adolescents and adults called NeuroACT that Johan Pahnke has developed.

Weekly group sessions

The treatment program consists of weekly group sessions that last 150 minutes, with 12-14 sessions. Each session follows a similar set-up with a short mindfulness or acceptance exercise, followed by a review of homework assignments, an introduction to the session’s theme, new homework assignments, and an evaluation of the group meeting.

The thesis investigated how the ACT-based group treatment worked for autistic students. Twenty-eight students aged 13-21 years received ACT treatment or regular schooling. The treatment program worked well when implemented in a school environment. Students who had completed the program experienced, among other things, reduced stress, depression, and anger, compared to the control group. However, the treatment did not affect the students’ anxiety and some other problems.

Improved well-being

The thesis also examined the treatment of autistic adults in psychiatric outpatient care. One study included ten people and the other 39. The results showed that most participants underwent the whole treatment and were satisfied. In addition, those who received the treatment experienced improvements in stress and several mental health measures. However, for some problems, no differences were seen.

“ACT adapted to autism seems to be able to reduce stress and improve well-being in adolescents and adults with autism. The treatment also appears to help the participants overcome some key autistic difficulties. However, more research is needed to evaluate the effect of ACT in autistic individuals,” says Johan Pahnke.

Reference: “Acceptance and commitment therapy for autism spectrum disorder: evaluation of feasibility, effectiveness, and validity of a novel contextual behavioral treatment” by Johan Pahnke, 12 May 2022.

Autism Spectrum DisorderDepressionKarolinska InstitutePsychologyStressTherapy