Wondering how you can help your child with autism spectrum disorder reach their fullest potential? Learn more about common autism treatments that can lead to healthy growth and development.
Understanding autism treatment options
Finding out that your child has autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be a shock. You might feel upset and even fearful about their future. But it’s important to remember that every child has their own strengths and weaknesses—and a child with autism is no exception.
There are many treatments that can help children with ASD acquire new skills and overcome a variety of developmental challenges. These treatments don’t aim to cure ASD. Instead, they help improve your child’s ability to socialize and play, function academically, and move through everyday life with adaptive skills.
Not every ASD treatment approach is effective for every child, though. It may take some time to tailor the treatment options to your child's specific needs. But a little patience and persistence can make a big difference in your child's life. Learning about the many treatments available can help you start to identify which approaches are best for your child and ensure they develop to their full potential.
Types of autism treatment available
When it comes to early autism treatment options, there are a dizzying variety of therapies and approaches. Some autism therapies focus on reducing problematic behaviors and building communication and social skills, while others deal with sensory integration problems, motor skills, emotional issues, and food sensitivities.
With so many choices, it is extremely important to do your research, talk to autism treatment experts, and ask questions. But keep in mind that you don’t have to choose just one type of therapy. The goal of autism treatment should be to treat your child’s unique array of symptoms and needs. This often requires a combined treatment approach that incorporates several different types of therapy.
[Read: Helping Your Child with Autism Thrive]
Common autism treatments include behavior therapy, speech-language therapy, play-based therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and nutritional therapy. But keep in mind that the routine is important and the program should be designed in a way that can be sustained. You should think about what skills and behaviors are most essential and treat those first. It may not be possible to tackle everything at once.
Behavior therapy is a commonly used ASD treatment that aims to encourage desired behaviors and reduce unwanted behaviors. Most behavior therapies follow techniques set out by applied behavior analysis (ABA). ABA aims to help a child with ASD understand the connection between behaviors and consequences.
In ABA-based therapy, attempts at desired behavior are positively reinforced. For example, a therapist might offer praise when a child tries to politely ask for help. Because a reward follows the behavior, the child is more likely to repeat the action. On the other hand, if the child has an angry outburst, no reward is given.
ABA is an evidence-based approach. It's also highly adaptable, so it can meet the needs of each child. Studies show that long-term, intensive therapy can improve a child's life skills, intellectual abilities, and social skills.
Early Start Denver Model (ESDM)
ESDM is an approach that works best for 12- to 48-month-olds and follows the practices of ABA. The sessions revolve around natural play and joint activities with therapists and parents. Singing could be used to encourage a child with ASD to vocalize, or a mimicry game could be used to teach the child to identify body parts. ESDM focuses on creating positive social interactions, enhancing communication and cognitive skills in the process.
It's important for you to be involved in your child's ESDM sessions. Fortunately, the sessions are flexible enough to take place at a clinic or in your own home. A therapist can guide you through what you need to know. Studies, including brain scan research, suggest that ESDM improves language and communication skills as well as adaptive behavior.
Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT)
PRT is another play-based approach that follows ABA practices. Rather than honing in on specific behaviors, PRT focuses on broader areas, including motivation, self-management, response to multiple cues, and initiation of social interactions. By focusing on these pivotal areas, PRT helps children make broad improvements with social skills and communication.
During a session, a therapist might put the child's favorite food or toy within view but out of reach. A situation like this encourages the child to speak up and ask for the item.
PRT has been studied since the 1970s, and it's been used in both one-on-one and group sessions. Studies suggest that it can be effective at building communication skills in children.
Discrete Trial Training (DTT)
DTT is an ABA-based approach that is more structured than PRT. A skill is broken down into smaller pieces. When teaching a child with ASD to write their name, a DTT approach might break the process down letter by letter. And forming each letter might be broken down into a stroke-by-stroke process. As the child advances through each step, they receive positive reinforcement.
DTT is effective in teaching skills to children with ASD, and has been used since the 1970s. This type of training doesn't involve as much natural play as ESDM or PRT.
The three types of ABA-based therapies aren't your only options. As you consider ASD treatment options, you'll come across approaches such as positive behavioral support (PBS) and early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI) as well.
If your child struggles with communication, speech-language therapy can help them improve their verbal and nonverbal skills. To improve verbal skills, a speech-language therapist may guide your child through exercises that involve describing feelings and identifying items and people. Other exercises improve the child's speech rhythm, sentence structure, and vocabulary. For example, during an exercise your child might be instructed to clap as they speak to bring attention to syllable count and pace.
When it comes to nonverbal communication skills, a speech-language therapist can teach your child about sign language, hand signals, or communication through pictures. Other nonverbal cues, such as making eye contact, can also be improved through speech-language therapy.
Physical therapy and occupational therapy
Some children with ASD experience difficulties with controlling physical actions. For example, they may have an unusual gait or trouble with handwriting. Physical therapy can build your child's motor skills. A focus on posture, coordination, balance, and muscle control can improve a child's social life and sense of well-being.
Occupational therapy helps children with autism build everyday skills that are useful at school or around the home, such as feeding, grooming, and dressing themselves. Similar to physical therapy, occupational therapy can enhance motor skills.
Sessions focus on an individual's unique needs, so your child may also learn to use assistive devices to adapt to situations and complete tasks. Examples of such devices include a speech-to-text app for a child who struggles with handwriting and a dry-erase board for a child who has difficulty with verbal communication.
Some children with autism struggle with digestive issues as well as bone density issues. On top of that, some children may show an aversion to specific flavors or textures, such as the soft squishiness of tomatoes or the lumpy texture of oatmeal. So, while meeting their nutritional needs is vital, it can also be a tricky endeavor.
[Read: Healthy Food for Kids]
If your child is a picky eater, nutritional therapy can help ensure they're still following a healthy diet. A nutrition specialist can work with you and your child to create a meal plan that caters to their specific needs and preferences.
You can also take some steps at home to improve your child's eating habits.
Consider your child’s favorite foods. Try offering them foods with similar tastes or textures. If they like French fries, for example, serve them a side of sweet potato fries for more variety.
Serve new dishes alongside current favorites. This allows you to add new ingredients while at the same time keeping some familiarity. Keep the portions small until your child actually shows a liking for the new food.
Give your child a sense of control by allowing them to select from several new food options. A possible lineup might include broccoli, asparagus, or green beans.
Cognitive behavior therapy
Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) can help children with ASD understand how thoughts influence behavior. A therapist shows the child how to recognize, reevaluate, and regulate emotions, such as anxiety. This type of therapy is useful for teaching children how to cope with difficult social situations and other challenges in life.
Like other autism treatment options, CBT sessions are personalized to meet the child’s needs. The approach may even be useful in addressing sleep issues, although more research is needed.
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Treatments for medical conditions that often accompany autism
Certain medical conditions tend to accompany autism. Here are few examples of common conditions and possible treatments.
Aggression. Some children with autism use aggressive behavior, such as yelling or hitting, to communicate distress. To manage this issue, you'll first need to understand what your child is trying to tell you. Maybe certain situations or stimuli, such as noises, cause them discomfort. Behavior therapy practices can help them develop more positive ways to express their needs.
Anxiety. Children with ASD may struggle with high anxiety or disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Anxiety can contribute to difficulty socializing or negative behaviors such as outbursts. However, there are various ways to manage anxiety. One helpful strategy may include teaching your child to identify anxious feelings. Gradually exposing them to the source of the anxiety in a safe environment may also help.
[Read: Anxiety Disorders and Anxiety Attacks]
Sleep disorders. Restlessness and other sleep disturbances can prevent children with ASD from getting enough sleep at night. Lack of sleep can have a negative effect on concentration and mood. So, it's important to develop good sleep hygiene practices, such as establishing a calming routine before bed.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD in children with ASD may involve impulsive behavior or inattentiveness, which can affect performance in school or during social situations. Strategies such as encouraging healthy sleep and exercise practices can help improve concentration.
Gastrointestinal (GI) issues. Children with ASD often deal with GI symptoms, including constipation, bloating, and abdominal pain. Some research suggests that GI symptoms may cause other issues on this list, such as aggression and sleep disturbances. A few ways to treat your child's GI problems include minimizing stress, encouraging physical activity, increasing fiber and water intake, and keeping track of which foods seem to cause discomfort.
Getting the most out of treatment
Although professional therapists will guide your child through treatments, you still have an important role to play as a parent. As you explore treatment options for your child, you can take these additional steps to ensure the sessions are as effective as possible.
Early intervention can increase the effectiveness of treatments. You don't necessarily have to wait for an official diagnosis before you begin to consider treatment options or even employ some basic strategies at home. Once your child has an official diagnosis and therapy options are available, don't hesitate to start treatment.
Try multiple treatments at the same time
Not every treatment you try will prove effective for your child. However, you can try multiple treatments at once and look for signs of improvement. Each treatment you rule out gets you one step closer to determining what works. Treatments such as nutritional therapy and speech-language therapy can overlap without causing harm.
Follow through with treatments at home
In some cases, a therapist will guide you through activities that you and your child can complete at home. For example, you might be able to apply play-based activities from PRT and ESDM at home. This is important for several reasons:
- It gives you more time to interact with and learn more about your child.
- Home treatments can also help build on skills learned during clinic visits.
- They can help empower you as a parent.
Establish a consistent schedule
As you explore treatment options, be mindful of your child's comfort level. Children with ASD tend to thrive when following a consistent schedule. Whenever possible, stick to a routine that incorporates therapy sessions and let your child know when the schedule may change.
Recognize your child’s strengths
Keep an eye out for areas in which your child excels. They may have a knack for music, for example, or have an uncanny eye for detail. Play to their strengths and preferences.
By finding ways to incorporate their strengths into rewards and ASD treatment at home, you can also help keep them engaged. And always remember that whatever obstacles your child may be facing, they have plenty of room to grow.
Author: Sheldon Reid
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Hotlines and support
In the U.S.: Call the Autism Society National Helpline at 1-800-328-8476.
Australia: Call the Early Intervention helpdesk in Perth at 1800 778 581 or Get support for your child from NDIS.
Canada: Call the Autism Canada Family Support Representative at 1-800-983-1795.
New Zealand: Find helplines and support in your area at Autism New Zealand.
Last updated: October 7, 2022
A notable behavioral treatment for people with ASD is called Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). ABA encourages desired behaviors and discourages undesired behaviors to improve a variety of skills. Progress is tracked and measured.What is the most effective intervention for autism? ›
Social skills training is important in reducing social deficits in ASDs, and effective approaches include ABA methods, peer-based intervention strategies, and social skills groups.What are the top three interventions for a child with autism? ›
The different types of evidence-based interventions include: Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) Treatment and education of autistic and related communication handicapped children (TEACCH)What is the gold standard for treatment of autism? ›
ABA is considered the gold standard for the treatment of children with autism. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is one of the major specialized treatments DE offers to children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). ABA is the application of the principles of behavior to problems of social significance.What are 5 strategies used to work with a child with autism? ›
- Support Routines and Transitions. Most children with autism are sensitive to abrupt changes in routine and will learn best in routine situations. ...
- Use Visual Cues. ...
- Use Special Interests as a Gateway to Teaching Skills. ...
- Incorporate Sensory Tools. ...
- Support social skills practice.
Early interventions occur at or before preschool age, as early as 2 or 3 years of age. In this period, a young child's brain is still forming,7 meaning it is more "plastic" or changeable than at older ages. Because of this plasticity, treatments have a better chance of being effective in the longer term.What are the new treatments for autism? ›
Just two drugs — the antipsychotics risperidone and aripiprazole — have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat autism-related irritability.What medications are good for autism? ›
- Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) This group of antidepressants treats some problems that result from imbalances in the body's chemical systems. ...
- Tricyclics. ...
- Psychoactive or anti-psychotic medications. ...
- Stimulants. ...
- Anti-anxiety medications. ...
There are five major types of autism which include Asperger's syndrome, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, Kanner's syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified.How do you calm down an autistic child? ›
- Be empathetic. Empathy means listening and acknowledging their struggle without judgment. ...
- Make them feel safe and loved. ...
- Eliminate punishments. ...
- Focus on your child, not staring bystanders. ...
- Break out your sensory toolkit. ...
- Teach them coping strategies once they're calm.
Main signs of autism
finding it hard to understand what others are thinking or feeling. getting very anxious about social situations. finding it hard to make friends or preferring to be on your own.
Adults who have not received appropriate treatment may have trouble living independently, may be unemployed, and may struggle with relationships. Autism can also impact physical and mental health, according to the 2017 National Autism Indicators Report: Developmental Disability Services and Outcomes in Adulthood.What is ABA therapy? ›
Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is an approach to understanding and changing behaviour. It's not a specific therapy itself, but a range of different strategies and techniques that can be used to help autistic people learn new skills and behaviour.Do you need ADOS to diagnose autism? ›
ADOS is not required to make a diagnosis of autism. The current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) governs the criteria for making an autism spectrum diagnosis, which any psychologist or psychiatrist can do using whatever methods they find effective.Is ABA the gold standard for autism? ›
With ABA being the gold standard for autism treatment, it is the first treatment recommended by medical professionals following a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.What games are good for autistic child? ›
Best Games for Children with Autism. I Never Forget a Face Memory Game This game is great for memory and also for recognizing and recognizing faces. Feelmo Speaking Cards These are good for helping teach emotions and feelings, and learning to identify and express them.How do you motivate a child with autism? ›
Incorporate learning tasks into preferred topics and activities. Plan tasks and activities that result in meaningful outcomes from the perspective of the learner. Vary tasks and activities frequently as opposed to requiring boring repetition. Conversely, capture opportunities to expand learning when interest is high.How do you teach high functioning autism? ›
Use a written or verbal schedule to prepare for change. Use positive and chronologically age-appropriate behavior procedures. Avoid “babying” your student on the spectrum by over-supporting his/her or speaking at a level associated with younger students. Consistent treatment and expectations from everyone is vital.Can children with autism improve? ›
Change in severity of autism symptoms and optimal outcome
One key finding was that children's symptom severity can change with age. In fact, children can improve and get better. "We found that nearly 30% of young children have less severe autism symptoms at age 6 than they did at age 3.
Although Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are generally assumed to be lifelong, we review evidence that between 3% and 25% of children reportedly lose their ASD diagnosis and enter the normal range of cognitive, adaptive and social skills.
In severe cases, an autistic child may never learn to speak or make eye contact. But many children with autism and other autism spectrum disorders are able to live relatively normal lives.What are three interventions that have been found to be useful in the treatment of autism spectrum disorder? ›
The most effective treatments available today are applied behavioral analysis, occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, and pharmacological therapy.What kind of therapy is used for autism? ›
- Behavioral management therapy.
- Cognitive behavior therapy.
- Early intervention.
- Educational and school-based therapies.
- Joint attention therapy.
- Medication treatment.
- Nutritional therapy.
- Occupational therapy.
Applied Behavioral Analysis, or ABA, is one of the most effective modern scientific approaches to changing behavior in people with autism. With an abundance of different techniques and strategies that can be tailored to each individual, it requires attention from teachers, therapists, and family.What are school based interventions for autism? ›
Some intervention strategies with potential to be effective and efficient in inclusive classroom settings include priming, self-management, script-fading, peer-mediated interven- tions, and organizing social activities involving the interests of the student with ASD.What are the newest treatments for autism? ›
Just two drugs — the antipsychotics risperidone and aripiprazole — have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat autism-related irritability.What are the 3 main symptoms of autism? ›
Main signs of autism
finding it hard to understand what others are thinking or feeling. getting very anxious about social situations. finding it hard to make friends or preferring to be on your own.
Adults who have not received appropriate treatment may have trouble living independently, may be unemployed, and may struggle with relationships. Autism can also impact physical and mental health, according to the 2017 National Autism Indicators Report: Developmental Disability Services and Outcomes in Adulthood.What are the 5 types of autism? ›
There are five major types of autism which include Asperger's syndrome, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, Kanner's syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified.How long does a child with autism need therapy? ›
The programs can last as long as 12 weeks to 3 years. They are held in homes, schools, and clinics. Early intensive behavioral intervention, cognitive behavioral therapy, and social skills training are types of behavior programs. Early intensive behavioral interventions target children's overall development.
ABA is defined as the process of applying behavioral principles to change specific behaviors and simultaneously evaluating the effectiveness of the intervention. ABA focuses on modification of physical environment and antecedent situations, which result in and maintain abnormal behavior.What is the best way to teach a child with autism? ›
- Avoid sensory overload. Many unexpected things can be distracting to students with autism. ...
- Use visuals. ...
- Be predictable. ...
- Keep language concrete. ...
- Directly teach social skills. ...
- Treat students as individuals.
Some autistic children will learn reading more easily with phonics, and others will learn best by memorizing whole words.Can an autistic person live a normal life? ›
In severe cases, an autistic child may never learn to speak or make eye contact. But many children with autism and other autism spectrum disorders are able to live relatively normal lives.What changes would you recommend to improve the teaching strategies? ›
- Make your expectations clear.
- Make eye contact and address students by name.
- Supplement lectures with hands-on activities.
- Recognize students' accomplishments and respond appropriately to their concerns.
- Draw connections between the course material and its real-world applications.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. People with ASD often have problems with social communication and interaction, and restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests. People with ASD may also have different ways of learning, moving, or paying attention.Which of the following is a reason to use evidence based practices EBPs with students with autism? ›
The interventions that researchers have shown to be effective are called evidence-based practices (EBPs). One reason for using EBPs is because, by law, teaching practices must be based on evidence of effectiveness.