Interventions for Specific Functions and Autism


Adult and adolescent sat togetherA number of interventions target specific functions, such as social communication, theory of mind or daily living skills. These interventions can sometimes form part of a wider intervention programme or can be used alone.

For example, comprehensive, multi-component behavioural and developmental interventions are usually designed to target a number of skills including social communication and social interaction.

Here we look at interventions which are specifically designed to target particular functions but which are not covered elsewhere in this section.



High-quality evidence shows that autistic people have difficulties with some specific functions, such as the core issues of social communication and social interaction. Some high quality evidence shows that some autistic people have difficulties with other things, such as some thought processes and some skills used in everyday life.

Each functional intervention has its own evidence (or lack of evidence). For example, a very limited amount of evidence shows that social skills groups may help some autistic adolescents. Determining the benefits of other interventions, such as functional-communication training or theory of mind training, for autistic people is more difficult. We must wait for further research of sufficiently high quality to be completed.

Risks and safety

No risks are known for most interventions which target specific functions.

Specific interventions

Cognitive Interventions

Traditional cognitive interventions (such as cognitive behavioural therapy) deal with thoughts and perceptions, and how these can affect feelings and behaviour.

By reassessing negative thoughts an individual can learn more flexible, positive ways of thinking, which can ultimately affect their feelings and behaviour towards those thoughts.

However there are also some cognitive interventions which have been specifically developed to improve those cognitive functions which may be especially impaired in some autistic people.

These impaired cognitive functions include central coherence, executive function, intellectual ability, memory, and theory of mind.

More Information

Please see 

Functional Communication Training

Functional communication training is based on the idea that problem behaviours (such as self harm, hitting other people or throwing tantrums) may be a form of communication.

It aims to teach autistic people to use other forms of communication as substitutes for the 'messages' underlying the challenging behaviours.

It requires a thorough assessment to identify the function (or 'message') of each challenging behaviour, followed by instruction on how to communicate that message in a more acceptable form.

For example, if the child throws a tantrum as a way to get out of doing some difficult task, then the instructor might teach the child to ask for a break by speaking, pointing, or gesturing when a task becomes challenging.

More information

Please see publications on Functional Communication Training 

Joint Attention / Engagement Interventions

Joint attention is the process in which an infant learns to recognize the direction of an adult's gaze, orient their own gaze to follow it, and then look in the same direction.

Joint engagement is the process in which an infant learns to involve themselves with the same object or event as another person.

Some people believe that joint attention and joint engagement are key skills that need to be developed before a child can develop other skills such as social communication and social interaction.

There are numerous interventions which are designed to improve joint attention and joint engagement amongst other skills in autistic people including some behavioural and developmental interventions.

More information

Please see publications on Joint Attention Interventions

Self Management Interventions

Self-management generally involves activities designed to change or maintain one's own behaviour.

In its simplest form, students are instructed to

  • observe specific aspects of their own behavior and
  • provide an objective recording of the occurrence or nonoccurrence of the observed behavior

This self-monitoring procedure involves providing a cue or prompt and having students discriminate whether they engaged in a specific behavior at the moment the cue was supplied.

An important benefit of self-management is the focus on skill building to teach students to be more independent, self-reliant, and responsible for their own classroom behaviour. By learning self-management techniques, students can become more self-directed and less dependent on external control and continuous supervision.

More information

Please see publications on Self Management

Social Communication Interventions

Social communication intervention is a term that appears to mean different things to different people.

For some people, the term can be used for any intervention designed to improve the social communication skills of autistic people. So it can include interventions as diverse as equine-assisted activities and therapies, social skills groups and the Picture Exchange Communication System.

For other people, the term is more specific and refers to a range of multi-component interventions based around a mix of behavioural and developmental techniques that are designed to target the key elements of early social communication skills including joint attention, social reciprocity, language and related cognitive skills.

Specific examples of social communication interventions that use these techniques include the DIR Method, the Early Start Denver Model, the Hanen 'More than Words' program, some forms of joint attention /engagement training, the Pre-school Autism Communication Trial, Reciprocal Imitation Training and the UCLA YAP model but there are many others.

Social Skills Groups

Social skills groups are designed to provide an opportunity for autistic people to practice and improve their social skills in a safe, supportive and structured environment.

Social skills groups meet on a regular basis and are usually facilitated by a professional. Some groups consist only of autistic people although some may also include non-autistic people who are there to demonstrate appropriate social skills.

A social skills group session typically includes a structured lesson on a specific skill, demonstration of the skill, role playing with rehearsal/practice of the skill, discussion, and individualised performance feedback.

Social skills groups differ from social groups in that they are more focussed on the attainment of skills and are therefore likely to be more structured.

More information

Please see

Theory of Mind Training

Theory of mind training programmes are designed to teach autistic people how to recognise mental states (thoughts, beliefs, desires, intentions, and emotions) in oneself or others, and to be able to make sense of and predict actions.

There are a variety of programmes designed to teach theory of mind. For example, some programmes are based on teaching children to visualise other people's thoughts and emotions by imagining those thoughts and emotions as pictures or thought bubbles.

More information

Please see

Related Pages

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16 Jun 2022