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Pitt Researcher Gets $3.2 Million Grant To Explore New Non-Drug Treatments For Adults With Autism

More than 3.5 million Americans currently live with some form of autism spectrum disorder, according to the Autism Society.

The University of Pittsburgh will soon begin a study testing two different non-drug treatments for adults with autism, thanks to a $3.2 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Shaun Eack, associate professor of social work and psychiatry at the university, will lead the research.

“This will be the first and largest study of its kind to really try to assess the benefits of psychotherapies (and) psychosocial interventions for adults with these conditions,” Eack said.

The study will test two types of psychosocial therapies. Cognitive enhancement therapy aims to help individuals with problems with cognition, thinking and understanding others, he said. Enriched supportive therapy focuses more on managing stress and emotions and learning how adults can succeed with it.

Each week, cognitive enhancement participants will complete three and a half hours of computer activities aimed at improving memory, attention and problem solving. There will also be group sessions where participants learn elements of social interaction, such as reading nonverbal cues and understanding another person’s perspective.

Those in enriched supportive therapy will meet one-on-one with a counselor one hour a week.

The 100 participants in the study, ranging from 16 to 40 years old, will be randomly assigned to one of the psychotherapies, which will last 18 months.

Although these therapies have successfully treated other disorders, this is the first time they will be applied to autism, Eack said.

“The work to develop these two therapies, interestingly enough, came out of schizophrenia, a condition that’s, of course, very different than autism spectrum disorder,” he said. “People with schizophrenia, like adults with autism, have very similar challenges in thinking, in emotionality and in understanding others.”

Eack is hopeful this study will shed some light on an aspect of autism research that has been historically underrepresented.

“We know a lot of things about adults with autism,” he said. “They have tremendous difficulty in adulthood. We know that this condition doesn’t go away when individuals become adults, of course. What there’s been very little on, is how to help these individuals in terms of the types of treatments that need to be available.”

Currently, there are only two drugs treatments for autism approved by the Food and Drug Administration. According to Autism Speaks, these drugs only treat the irritability autism causes, not the main symptoms of the disorder.

Since 1960, only 15 psychosocial autism treatment studies have been conducted, according to Eack.

“The evidence base is far below what we would expect and hope it to be for a group of individuals with this level of need,” he said. “This study is really designed to try to build that evidence base and is really, in some respects, a first step.”