Conceptually, there are 3 broad categories of treatment modalities used to support children with autism: 1) behavior and communication approaches, 2) medications, and 3) complementary and alternative medicines, including dietary approaches. What is needed for each individual child will vary and should be based on a consultation with an expert provider in autism.
In our view, the overarching goal is to help a child with autism reach their fullest potential and improve their long-term quality of life. This often means helping them develop new skills to navigate the modern world, for instance by helping with speech and communication skills. But this is an important question to ask any provider you may consider.
There is a strong evidence base for early intervention on outcomes, and early intervention is supported by leading US medical societies. Parents should, in consultation with a provider, strongly consider services at a young age to support a child’s long-term growth and development. Research studies have even found physiologic improvements in children who receive early intervention therapy, such as changes on brain wave tests (EEG) when viewing faces and objects.
Behavior therapy for children with autism is typically based on the principles of applied behavioral analysis, or ABA. Simply put, ABA focuses on the use of reinforcement to develop new skills or increase the use of certain positive behaviors. For instance, in a child with delayed speech who likes cars, a therapist might work with the child to say the word “car” and then provide reinforcement for the child saying “car” by giving him or her a toy car. There has been a tremendous amount written about ABA online and it’s easy to get lost, confused, and overwhelmed in the sea of information. Additional detail on ABA and how to evaluate providers is available in our new parent kit that you can download from our website.
ABA is not one therapy—rather, it is a family or umbrella of overlapping therapies. Several different models may be used with your child that, while based on the same underlying principles of ABA, in practice look quite different from one another. We’ve created an infographic on our Family Resources page to talk more about the differences between the different sub-types of ABA therapy, and additional detail is available in our new parent kit.
ABA is not the only evidence-based therapy used in children with autism. For instance, children often benefit from speech therapy and occupational therapy, among other types of therapy. But ABA has been shown in multiple studies to support the development of children with autism, particularly at an early age. The therapies tend to be complementary with one another and high-quality programs will focus on a comprehensive and individualized approach across modalities for a child.
Speech therapy is a type of communication therapy typically performed by a Speech-Language Pathologist, a Master’s- or Doctorate-level clinician who specializes in speech and communication. There are many different approaches that a speech therapist may use to support communication in children with autism.
Occupational therapy is a type of therapy typically performed by an Occupational Therapist, a Master’s- or Doctorate-level clinician. Specific approaches will vary by clinician and by child, but can include enhancing sensory processing, supporting self-care and daily living skills (e.g. getting dressed), and assisting with fine motor and gross motor delays.
There are no medicines that have been shown to cure autism or treat its core symptoms. However, a healthcare provider may prescribe medication to support the well-being and functioning of a child with autism, such as medicines to help manage anxiety or help with sleep.
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