There are a wide variety of treatments for Autism spectrum disorder in children. While there is no known cure for autism, there are treatment and education approaches that can address some of the challenges associated with the condition. Researching your options is a necessary part of the process, and consulting with a healthcare professional is an important step to help guide your decision-making based on your child’s specific needs. There is no single best treatment package for all children with ASD. Two points that most professionals agree on is that early intervention is important, and most individuals with ASD respond well to highly-structured, specialized programs. The goal with any treatment is to match a child’s potential and specific needs with strategies that will help them reach their greatest potential.
When gathering information about the various options available, it is important to learn as much as you can, look at all the options, and make your decision on your child’s treatment based on the individual needs of your child. All children with an ASD diagnosis have varying needs, and levels of severity. No two children are alike, with respect to challenges and abilities.
You may want to visit public schools in your area to see the type of program they offer to special needs children. Consulting with your pediatrician is the first step in guiding you to a proper diagnosis. To prepare for your visit, it may be helpful to gather a list of any medications your child is taking, along with any concerns you have about your child’s development, communication, or behavior.
It may be helpful to note a list of such things as your child’s developmental milestones (e.g., when your child started talking) and how they interact with others. Put together a list of questions for your doctor ahead of time so you can really think about questions you’d like to ask — this will help save you time when consulting with your doctor during an appointment.
Questions to Ask a Professional
Some questions to consider asking your healthcare provider:
- Why do you think my child has autism spectrum disorder?
- Is there a way to confirm the diagnosis?
- How much and what kinds of medical care will my child need?
- What kind of special therapies or care do children with autism spectrum disorder need?
- How severe is the ASD? Is there a way to tell?
- What changes can I expect to see in my child over time?
- Is there support is available to families of children with autism spectrum disorder?
- How can I learn more about autism spectrum disorder?
ASD Early Intervention
Early speech or behavioral interventions can help children with ASD learn self-care as well as social and communication skills. These services can help children (from birth to 3 years old) learn fundamental, basic skills, including walking, talking, and communicating with others. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) states that children under the age of 3 years who are at risk of having developmental delays may be eligible for services. These services are provided through an early intervention system in your state, through which you can ask for an evaluation.
Childhood ASD Treatments
Families play an important role in facilitating the development and well-being of children with autism spectrum conditions; they often become teachers and interventionists. Understanding what triggers your child’s challenging or disruptive behaviors and what elicits a positive response is a very important component to putting the appropriate treatment in place, specific to your child’s needs. What does your child find stressful or frightening? Calming? Uncomfortable? Enjoyable? If you understand what affects your child, you’ll be better at troubleshooting problems and preventing or modifying situations that cause difficulties. Working alongside a healthcare professional can help you develop strategies for the best approach with respect to your child’s needs.
Medications might not affect all children in the same way and they will not be a “cure all.” Often they can help control some symptoms that might inhibit functioning, such as depression, seizures, gastrointestinal issues, high/low energy levels, irritability, aggression, self-injurious behaviors, anxiety, hyperactivity, impulsivity, inattention, and insomnia. It is important to work with a health care professional who has experience in treating children with ASD and monitor the child’s progress as they are taking medications to be sure there are no adverse affects.
Behavioral training and management
Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA)
ABA measures and tracks the child’s progress using positive-behavior reinforcement by offering reward for completion of a task or positive behavior — e.g., verbal praise, tokens, or food — while negative and disruptive behaviors are ignored and/or discouraged. Social skills training is also incorporated into this method, which can teach children with ASD how to interpret eye contact, gestures, tone or inflection, humor, and sarcasm.
There are different types of ABA. Following are some examples:
- Discrete Trial Training (DTT): Teaches each individual step of a desired behavior or response. By breaking down lessons to simple parts, in conjunction with positive reinforcement when each step is accomplished, the child is able to make gains more readily. Positive reinforcement is used to reward correct answers and behaviors.
- Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI): ABA targeted to children generally younger than 3 years old.
- Pivotal Response Training (PRT): stimulates motivation to learn and encourages the child to monitor his own behavior as well as learn to communicate with others. Improvements on these issues should have positive effects on other behaviors.
- Verbal Behavior Intervention (VBI): An ABA that focuses on teaching verbal skills.
Other therapies that can be part of a complete treatment program for a child with an ASD include:
- Developmental, Individual Differences, Relationship-Based Approach (DIR): DIR, also known as “Floortime” focuses on having the child interact with other children and parents through play. Highlights feelings and relationships with caregivers as well as how the child copes sounds, sights, and smells.
- Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication-handicapped CHildren (TEACCH): Uses images, such as picture cards, to break down a task into small steps as a method to teach skills.
- Occupational therapy teaches the child basic life skills, such as bathing, eating and dressing, and relating to people.
- Sensory integration therapy assists helping the child to process sensory information in a more manageable way. This therapy may be helpful for a child who is sensitive to being touched or bothered by certain sounds.
- Speech therapy helps to improve the child’s communication skills. Some children are able to learn verbal communication skills and others are able to better communicate using gestures or picture boards.
- The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) uses picture symbols to teach children ways to communicate. Picture symbols are used by the child to stimulate questions to ask as well as for the child to answer questions and have a conversation.
Some dietary treatments have been developed by reliable therapists. But many of these treatments do not have the scientific support needed for widespread recommendation. An unproven treatment might help one child, but may not help another. Such changes may include using vitamins or mineral supplements or removing certain foods from a child’s diet. Dietary treatments are based on the idea that food allergies or lack of vitamins and minerals cause symptoms of ASD. It is always a good idea to talk with your pediatrician before changing or modify your child’s diet or vitamin regimen. A nutritionist consultation may be helpful, to be sure your child is getting the proper nutrients, vitamins and minerals in their diet.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Treatment. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/treatment.html on January 11, 2019.
Autism Speaks. (2018). How is Autism Treated? Retrieved from https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/treatment on January 12, 2019.
Web MD. (2018). Autism – Treatment Overview. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/autism-treatment-overview on January 12, 2019.
National Institutes of Health. (2018). Treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5044466/ on January 11, 2019.
Autism Science Foundation. (2018). Treatment Options. Retrieved from https://autismsciencefoundation.org/what-is-autism/treatment-options/ on January 12, 2019.
Mayo Clinic. (2018). Autism spectrum disorder. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/autism-spectrum-disorder/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20352934 on January 12, 2019.