Non-pharmacological interventions for autistic children: An umbrella review

David Trembath, Kandice Varcin, Hannah Waddington, Rhylee Sulek, Cathy Bent, Jill Ashburner, Valsamma Eapen, Emma Goodall, Kristelle Hudry, Jacqueline Roberts, Natalie Silove, Andrew Whitehouse

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


The breadth of available non-pharmacological interventions for autistic children, with varying evidence for efficacy summarised in multiple systematic reviews, creates challenges for parents, practitioners, and policymakers in navigating the research evidence. In this article, we report the findings of an umbrella review of 58 systematic reviews of non-pharmacological interventions for autistic children (aged 0-12 years). Positive therapeutic effects were identified for Behavioural interventions, Developmental interventions, Naturalistic Developmental Behavioural Interventions, Technology-based interventions, and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy across several child and family outcomes. Positive effects for certain practices within Sensory-based interventions and 'other' interventions were limited to select child and family outcomes. Both inconsistent and null intervention effects were found for Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication-handicapped Children, and Animal-assisted interventions across outcomes. The possible influence of child (chronological age, core autism characteristics, and related skills) and delivery (agent, mode, format, and amount) characteristics on intervention effects was rarely examined, and inconsistent where reported. Twenty-seven systematic reviews (47%) were rated as 'high' quality. Few systematic reviews examined children's participation and quality of life or adverse effects. The findings highlight the need for individualised evidence-based decision-making when selecting interventions for autistic children. Lay abstract What is already known about the topic? The delivery of evidence-based interventions is an important part of the clinical pathway for many autistic children and their families. However, parents, practitioners, and policymakers face challenges making evidence informed decisions, due to the wide variety of interventions available and the large, and often inconsistent, body of evidence regarding their effectiveness. What this paper adds? This is a comprehensive umbrella review, also known as a 'review of reviews', which examined the range of interventions available, the evidence for their effectiveness, and whether effects were influenced by factors relating to individual children (e.g. chronological age, core autism characteristics, and related skills) or the ways interventions were delivered (by whom and in what setting, format, mode, and amount). There was evidence for positive therapeutic effects for some, but not all, interventions. No single intervention had a positive effect for all child and family outcomes of interest. The influence of child and delivery characteristics on effects was unclear. Implications for practice, research, and policy The findings provide parents, practitioners, and policymakers with a synthesis of the research evidence to inform decision-making and highlight the importance of individualised approaches in the absence of clear and consistent evidence. The findings also highlight the need to improve consistency and completeness in reporting of research studies, so that the same questions may be answered more comprehensively in the future.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages21
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 8 Sep 2022


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