Understanding Autism

To better comprehend the relationship between autism and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), it is essential to first understand what autism is and recognize its symptoms.

What is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how individuals interact with others, communicate, learn, and behave. It is characterized as a "developmental disorder" because symptoms usually manifest within the first two years of life.

Symptoms of Autism

People with autism often experience difficulties in social communication and interaction. They may struggle with understanding tone of voice, facial expressions, or body language, making it challenging to form friendships with peers. Additionally, individuals with autism may exhibit restrictive or repetitive behaviors, such as repetitive movements or the use of objects, rigid adherence to routines, or intense interests in specific topics.

Brittany, a 21-year-old woman, serves as an example of someone with both borderline personality disorder (BPD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). She displays characteristics including restricted interests, a desire for routine, sensory difficulties, and a high level of social interest. Brittany also exhibits challenges with social interactions, such as inflexibility and egocentricity in play, difficulty with sharing and losing in games, and emotional distress when her desires are not met. She has experienced bullying, has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and generalized anxiety, and has struggled with severe eating disorder symptoms.

A neuropsychological assessment of Brittany revealed strengths in processing verbal information, vocabulary, and short-term memory, but difficulties in verbal abstract reasoning, speed of information processing, planning, organization, problem-solving, and flexible thinking. She also showed deficits in emotion recognition and understanding complexity within social interactions, suggesting challenges in comprehending nuanced social dynamics [2].

By understanding what autism entails and recognizing its symptoms, we can explore how dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) can be adapted to support individuals on the autism spectrum and help address their unique needs.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a modified form of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) that was originally developed to treat borderline personality disorder (BPD) but has since been adapted to address a range of mental health conditions beyond BPD. DBT aims to help individuals live in the present moment, develop healthy coping mechanisms for stress, regulate emotions, and improve relationships with others.

Overview of DBT

DBT employs a structured approach that combines individual psychotherapy, group skills training, and phone coaching. It incorporates various techniques, such as core mindfulness, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, and emotion regulation. These techniques are designed to help individuals build skills for effectively managing challenging emotions, improving interpersonal relationships, and navigating stressful situations.

The therapy was developed in the late 1980s by Dr. Marsha Linehan and colleagues, initially to address the unique needs of individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD) after finding that traditional cognitive-behavioral therapy alone was not as effective for this population. However, DBT has proven to be an effective therapy for various mental health conditions beyond BPD, including emotional regulation difficulties, self-destructive behaviors, eating disorders, substance use disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Adaptations for ASD

DBT has also been adapted to address the specific needs of individuals on the autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Due to the challenges individuals with ASD may face in emotional regulation and interpersonal interactions, DBT can offer valuable support in developing coping strategies and enhancing social functioning.

Adaptations for ASD may include modifications to the language used, the pace of therapy, and the integration of visual aids or social stories to facilitate understanding and engagement. Therapists working with individuals with ASD may also focus on specific social skills training, such as emotion recognition and regulation, perspective-taking, and effective communication strategies.

By tailoring DBT techniques to the unique needs of individuals with ASD, therapists can provide valuable support and empower individuals to navigate social challenges, manage their emotions, and enhance their overall well-being. The adaptations made in DBT for ASD aim to address the specific challenges faced by individuals on the autism spectrum, promoting their personal growth and improved quality of life.

Efficacy of DBT for ASD

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) has shown promise as an effective treatment approach for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Research studies have explored the impact of DBT on various outcomes related to ASD treatment, shedding light on its potential effectiveness.

Research Studies on DBT

A multicenter randomized controlled clinical trial aimed to evaluate the efficacy of DBT in individuals with ASD and suicidal or self-destructive behavior. The study assessed several outcomes, including suicidal ideation and behavior, anxiety, social performance, depression, core symptoms of ASD, quality of life, and cost-utility. While the specific results of this trial are pending, it highlights the growing interest in utilizing DBT for individuals with ASD.

Another study examined the effectiveness of DBT, specifically Radically Open DBT (RO DBT), in routine clinical practice for individuals with mental disorders, including ASD [5]. The findings provide preliminary evidence for the effectiveness of RO DBT in adults with ASD, particularly those without intellectual disability.

Effectiveness in ASD Treatment

DBT, when modified for individuals with ASD, has shown positive outcomes in emotional regulation, communication skills, self-awareness, and self-esteem. Modified DBT for ASD typically involves individual therapy sessions and group skills training sessions, providing individuals with opportunities to practice their new skills in a supportive environment.

In a study evaluating the effectiveness of DBT, participants with ASD who completed the therapy had significantly better outcomes compared to those without an ASD diagnosis. The study reported a medium effect size for improvement in CORE global distress, indicating the positive impact of DBT for individuals with ASD.

These research studies highlight the potential efficacy of DBT for individuals with ASD. While more research is needed to further establish its effectiveness, DBT, particularly when modified for ASD, has shown promise in improving various aspects of emotional well-being and functioning in individuals with ASD.


Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy (RO DBT) is a transdiagnostic treatment approach that aims to address disorders associated with overcontrol, including Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). While no studies have specifically reported on the effectiveness of RO DBT for individuals with ASD, there is promising evidence regarding its efficacy for mental disorders in general.

Radical Openness in Therapy

RO DBT emphasizes the concept of radical openness, which involves fostering flexibility, adaptability, and openness to new experiences. This approach encourages individuals to challenge rigid thinking patterns and behaviors commonly associated with ASD. By promoting flexibility and adaptability, RO DBT aims to enhance emotional well-being and overall functioning.

In RO DBT, therapists work collaboratively with individuals with ASD to help them gain insight into their own thoughts and feelings. They help individuals develop better coping strategies, regulate emotions, improve communication skills, build stronger relationships, and increase autonomy.

Benefits for Individuals with ASD

While more research is needed, preliminary evidence suggests potential benefits of RO DBT for individuals with ASD without intellectual disability. A study found that participants with ASD who completed the therapy had significantly better outcomes compared to those without an ASD diagnosis. The therapy was effective in reducing global distress, with a medium effect size of 0.53.

The focus of RO DBT on increasing flexibility, adaptability, and emotional regulation may be particularly beneficial for individuals with ASD. By helping individuals develop more effective coping strategies and improving their ability to understand and regulate emotions, RO DBT may contribute to enhancing overall well-being and quality of life for individuals with ASD.

It is important to note that future research should explore RO DBT for ASD using randomized controlled trials and consider comorbid conditions and additional treatments that participants may receive. Further studies can provide a more comprehensive understanding of the effectiveness and potential benefits of RO DBT for individuals with ASD, guiding the development of tailored treatment approaches for this population.

Clinical Management

When it comes to the clinical management of individuals with autism and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a comprehensive approach is crucial. This section will explore two key aspects of clinical management: assessments and evaluations, and tailored treatment approaches.

Assessments and Evaluations

Clinical management for individuals with autism and comorbid conditions, such as borderline personality disorder (BPD), should involve thorough assessments from multiple dimensions. These assessments typically involve medical, psychological, developmental, and behavioral evaluations. The aim is to gain a comprehensive understanding of the individual's unique characteristics, needs, and challenges.

Through these assessments, clinicians can identify the primary clinical focus, whether it be BPD or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and prioritize stabilization in treatment. This ensures that interventions address the specific needs of both disorders while considering the individual's overall well-being.

Tailored Treatment Approaches

Tailoring treatment approaches is essential when managing individuals with autism and comorbid conditions. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is one approach that has shown promise in treating individuals with comorbid BPD and ASD. DBT focuses on enhancing emotional regulation, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, and mindfulness.

DBT therapists often use diary cards to track emotions, actions, and patterns, allowing clients to identify triggers and patterns in their lives. This information informs the focus of each therapy session, enabling individuals to develop coping strategies and build skills to manage their emotions and behaviors.

DBT typically consists of individual therapy, group skills training, telephone coaching, and a combination of acceptance and change techniques. Individual therapy sessions usually take place once a week and last approximately 45 to 60 minutes [7].

It's important to note that DBT may not be suitable for everyone and requires active engagement and commitment from the individual. However, when individuals are willing to participate and utilize the skills learned in therapy, DBT can be an effective treatment approach for managing both ASD and comorbid conditions such as BPD.

By conducting comprehensive assessments and tailoring treatment approaches, clinicians can provide individuals with autism and comorbid conditions the support they need to navigate the challenges they face. These personalized approaches take into account the unique characteristics and needs of each individual, promoting positive outcomes in their overall well-being.

Future of DBT for ASD

As research on Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) continues to evolve, ongoing studies and trials are shedding light on the potential outcomes and implications of this therapeutic approach.

Ongoing Studies and Trials

One ongoing study aims to recruit 128 individuals with ASD and suicidal/self-harming behavior from specialized mental healthcare services. Participants will be randomized into either the DBT condition or the treatment-as-usual condition. Assessments will be conducted at baseline, post-treatment (6 months), and after a 12-month follow-up period. The primary outcome is the level of suicidal ideation and behavior, and secondary outcomes include anxiety, social performance, depression, core symptoms of ASD, quality of life, and cost-utility. The study is currently in the data collection stage.

Potential Outcomes and Implications

Preliminary evidence suggests the effectiveness of DBT, specifically Radical Openness DBT (RO DBT), for mental disorders in routine clinical practice, including adults with ASD without intellectual disability. A study found that individuals with ASD who completed the therapy had significantly better outcomes compared to those without an ASD diagnosis. The intervention resulted in a medium effect size for improvement in global distress [5].

Given the relatively high prevalence of suicidal ideation, self-harm, and suicide attempts in individuals with ASD, the need for evidence-based treatments is crucial. DBT shows promise in addressing these challenges, as it focuses on emotion regulation and provides strategies for managing distressing thoughts and behaviors. Ongoing research aims to determine the effectiveness of DBT in reducing suicidal ideation and behavior in individuals with ASD, along with assessing secondary outcomes such as anxiety, depression, social performance, and quality of life.

As future studies examine DBT for ASD using randomized controlled trial methodologies, it will be important to record any additional psychological and pharmacological treatments received for comorbid conditions. This will contribute to a comprehensive understanding of the potential benefits and limitations of DBT in the treatment of ASD.

Continued research and trials hold the potential to enhance our understanding of DBT's efficacy and refine its application in the context of ASD. By building upon current knowledge, researchers and clinicians can work towards developing evidence-based interventions that effectively address the unique challenges faced by individuals with ASD and promote their overall well-being.