REACH-ASD: a UK randomised controlled trial of a new post-diagnostic psycho-education and acceptance and commitment therapy programme against treatment-as-usual for improving the mental health and adjustment of caregivers of children recently diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder

Trials. 2022 Jul 22;23(1):585. doi: 10.1186/s13063-022-06524-1.


Background: Autism is a neurodevelopmental disability affecting over 1% of UK children. The period following a child's autism diagnosis can present real challenges in adaptation for families. Twenty to 50% of caregivers show clinically significant levels of mental health need within the post-diagnostic period and on an ongoing basis. Best practice guidelines recommend timely post-diagnostic family support. Current provision is patchy, largely unevidenced, and a source of dissatisfaction for both families and professionals. There is a pressing need for an evidenced programme of post-diagnostic support focusing on caregiver mental health and adjustment, alongside autism psycho-education. This trial tests the clinical and cost-effectiveness of a new brief manualised psychosocial intervention designed to address this gap.

Methods: This is a multi-centre two-parallel-group single (researcher)-blinded randomised controlled trial of the Empower-Autism programme plus treatment-as-usual versus usual local post-diagnostic offer plus treatment-as-usual. Caregivers of children aged 2-15 years with a recent autism diagnosis will be recruited from North West England NHS or local authority centres. Randomisation is individually by child, with one "index" caregiver per child, stratified by centre, using 2:1 randomisation ratio to assist recruitment and timely intervention. Empower-Autism is a group-based, manualised, post-diagnostic programme that combines autism psycho-education and psychotherapeutic components based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to support caregiver mental health, stress management and adjustment to their child's diagnosis. The comparator is any usual local group-based post-diagnostic psycho-education offer. Receipt of services will be specified through health economic data.

Primary outcome: caregiver mental health (General Health Questionnaire-30) at 52-week follow-up.

Secondary outcomes: key caregiver measures (wellbeing, self-efficacy, adjustment, autism knowledge) at 12-, 26- and 52-week follow-up and family and child outcomes (wellbeing and functioning) at 52-week endpoint.

Sample: N=380 (approximately 253 intervention/127 treatment-as-usual). Primary analysis will follow intention-to-treat principles using linear mixed models with random intercepts for group membership and repeated measures. Cost-effectiveness acceptability analyses will be over 52 weeks, with decision modelling to extrapolate to longer time periods.

Discussion: If effective, this new approach will fill a key gap in the provision of evidence-based care pathways for autistic children and their families.

Trial registration: ISRCTN 45412843 . Prospectively registered on 11 September 2019.

Keywords: Acceptance and commitment therapy; Autism; Caregivers; Diagnosis; Psycho-education; Randomised controlled trial.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy*
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder* / diagnosis
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder* / therapy
  • Caregivers / psychology
  • Child
  • Cost-Benefit Analysis
  • Humans
  • Mental Health
  • Quality of Life
  • United Kingdom