In a systematic review, Brian Reichow and colleagues assess the evidence that non-specialist care providers in community settings can provide effective interventions for children and adolescents with intellectual disabilities or lower-functioning autism spectrum disorders.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
The development of effective treatments for use by non-specialists is listed among the top research priorities for improving the lives of people with mental illness worldwide. The purpose of this review is to appraise which interventions for children with intellectual disabilities or lower-functioning autism spectrum disorders delivered by non-specialist care providers in community settings produce benefits when compared to either a no-treatment control group or treatment-as-usual comparator.
Methods and Findings
We systematically searched electronic databases through 24 June 2013 to locate prospective controlled studies of psychosocial interventions delivered by non-specialist providers to children with intellectual disabilities or lower-functioning autism spectrum disorders. We screened 234 full papers, of which 34 articles describing 29 studies involving 1,305 participants were included. A majority of the studies included children exclusively with a diagnosis of lower-functioning autism spectrum disorders (15 of 29, 52%). Fifteen of twenty-nine studies (52%) were randomized controlled trials and just under half of all effect sizes (29 of 59, 49%) were greater than 0.50, of which 18 (62%) were statistically significant. For behavior analytic interventions, the best outcomes were shown for development and daily skills; cognitive rehabilitation, training, and support interventions were found to be most effective for improving developmental outcomes, and parent training interventions to be most effective for improving developmental, behavioral, and family outcomes. We also conducted additional subgroup analyses using harvest plots. Limitations include the studies' potential for performance bias and that few were conducted in lower- and middle-income countries.
The findings of this review support the delivery of psychosocial interventions by non-specialist providers to children who have intellectual disabilities or lower-functioning autism spectrum disorders. Given the scarcity of specialists in many low-resource settings, including many lower- and middle-income countries, these findings may provide guidance for scale-up efforts for improving outcomes for children with developmental disorders or lower-functioning autism spectrum disorders.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Newborn babies are helpless, but over the first few years of life, they acquire motor (movement) skills, language (communication) skills, cognitive (thinking) skills, and social (interpersonal interaction) skills. Individual aspects of these skills are usually acquired at specific ages, but children with a development disorder such as an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or intellectual disability (mental retardation) fail to reach these “milestones” because of impaired or delayed brain maturation. Autism, Asperger syndrome, and other ASDs (also called pervasive developmental disorders) affect about 1% of the UK and US populations and are characterized by abnormalities in interactions and communication with other people (reciprocal socio-communicative interactions; for example, some children with autism reject physical affection and fail to develop useful speech) and a restricted, stereotyped, repetitive repertoire of interests (for example, obsessive accumulation of facts about unusual topics). About half of individuals with an ASD also have an intellectual disability—a reduced overall level of intelligence characterized by impairment of the skills that are normally acquired during early life. Such individuals have what is called lower-functioning ASD.
Why Was This Study Done?
Most of the children affected by developmental disorders live in low- and middle-income countries where there are few services available to help them achieve their full potential and where little research has been done to identify the most effective treatments. The development of effective treatments for use by non-specialists (for example, teachers and parents) is necessary to improve the lives of people with mental illnesses worldwide, but particularly in resource-limited settings where psychiatrists, psychologists, and other specialists are scarce. In this systematic review, the researchers investigated which psychosocial interventions for children and adolescents with intellectual disabilities or lower-functioning ASDs delivered by non-specialist providers in community settings produce improvements in development, daily skills, school performance, behavior, or family outcomes when compared to usual care (the control condition). A systematic review identifies all the research on a given topic using predefined criteria; psychosocial interventions are defined as therapy, education, training, or support aimed at improving behavior, overall development, or specific life skills without the use of drugs.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers identified 29 controlled studies (investigations with an intervention group and a control group) that examined the effects of various psychosocial interventions delivered by non-specialist providers to children (under 18 years old) who had a lower-functioning ASD or intellectual disability. The researchers retrieved information on the participants, design and methods, findings, and intervention characteristics for each study, and calculated effect sizes—a measure of the effectiveness of a test intervention relative to a control intervention—for several outcomes for each intervention. Across the studies, three-quarters of the effect size estimates were positive, and nearly half were greater than 0.50; effect sizes of less than 0.2, 0.2–0.5, and greater than 0.5 indicate that an intervention has no, a small, or a medium-to-large effect, respectively. For behavior analytic interventions (which aim to improve socially significant behavior by systematically analyzing behavior), the largest effect sizes were seen for development and daily skills. Cognitive rehabilitation, training, and support (interventions that facilitates the relearning of lost or altered cognitive skills) produced good improvements in developmental outcomes such as standardized IQ tests in children aged 6–11 years old. Finally, parental training interventions (which teach parents how to provide therapy services for their child) had strong effects on developmental, behavioral, and family outcomes.
What Do These Findings Mean?
Because few of the studies included in this systematic review were undertaken in low- and middle-income countries, the review's findings may not be generalizable to children living in resource-limited settings. Moreover, other characteristics of the included studies may limit the accuracy of these findings. Nevertheless, these findings support the delivery of psychosocial interventions by non-specialist providers to children who have intellectual disabilities or a lower-functioning ASD, and indicate which interventions are likely to produce the largest improvements in developmental, behavioral, and family outcomes. Further studies are needed, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, to confirm these findings, but given that specialists are scarce in many resource-limited settings, these findings may help to inform the implementation of programs to improve outcomes for children with intellectual disabilities or lower-functioning ASDs in low- and middle-income countries.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001572.
This study is further discussed in a PLOS Medicine
Perspective by Bello-Mojeed and Bakare
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information (in English and Spanish) on developmental disabilities, including autism spectrum disorders and intellectual disability
The US National Institute of Mental Health also provides detailed information about autism spectrum disorders, including the publication “A Parent's Guide to Autism Spectrum Disorder”
Autism Speaks, a US non-profit organization, provides information about all aspects of autism spectrum disorders and includes information on the Autism Speaks Global Autism Public Health Initiative
The National Autistic Society, a UK charity, provides information about all aspects of autism spectrum disorders and includes personal stories about living with these conditions
The UK National Health Service Choices website has an interactive guide to child development and information about autism and Asperger syndrome, including personal stories, and about learning disabilities
The UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence provides clinical guidelines for the management and support of children with autism spectrum disorders
The World Health Organization provides information on its Mental Health Gap Action Programme (mhGAP), which includes recommendations on the management of developmental disorders by non-specialist providers; the mhGAP Evidence Resource Center provides evidence reviews for parent skills training for management of children with intellectual disabilities and pervasive developmental disorders and interventions for management of children with intellectual disabilities
PROSPERO, an international prospective register of systematic reviews, provides more information about this systematic review