With all the options available for autism treatment, it can be hard to know where to turn. While there is no proven cure for autism, most experts agree that treatment should start early and should include structured, intensive therapy (25 hours per week or more) and encourage family participation. The following approaches are commonly used to treat autism:
- Behavioral Therapies—In these types of programs, therapists target specific behaviors and skills. They will present a task and use positive reinforcement and rewards when the desired behavior is produced. Examples of common behavioral treatments include: Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA, sometimes called Lovaas), Discrete Trial Training, and Pivotal Response training. Behavioral approaches are widely accepted and evidence-based, meaning they have been proven effective in scientific research studies.
- Developmental Therapies—In these approaches, therapists and parents attempt to build core skills by meeting children at their own level and working with their interests. They emphasize natural play and the development of social skills. Well-known developmental therapies include Floortime (sometimes called DIR) and Relationship Development Intervention (RDI).
- Traditional Therapies—These therapies include speech, occupational, and physical therapy. They are almost always used in conjunction with behavioral and/or developmental therapies.
- Medical Treatment—This involves medications to manage the co-existing medical conditions that often occur with autism. Medications to treat anxiety, depression, ADHD, and seizures are commonly used. Certain antipsychotic drugs have also been approved by the FDA for use in some children with severe behavioral problems.
- Alternative Treatments—These approaches are outside the recommendations of mainstream medicine. They include “biomedical” treatments such as dietary modifications, supplements, chelation, and hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Some families report improvements with alternative treatments, however none of them are currently supported by scientific evidence. This is a controversial area of autism treatment where much more research is needed.
Often a combination of approaches is used to treat autism. What is helpful for one child may not be for another, so treatment plans need to be individualized for each child. With hard work and perseverance, the right treatment approach can help children with autism reach their fullest potential.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, January 2019
- There are multiple treatments for autism that help affected children. It’s best to start treatment as early as possible.
- Available treatments include behavioral, developmental, medical and alternative.
- Many children benefit from a combination of treatment options.
- Different children respond differently to different types of treatment.