Autism Treatments

Written by the Healthline Editorial Team | Published on September 9, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Kenneth R. Hirsch, MD on September 9, 2014

Autism Treatment Options

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) affect the ability of a person to communicate and interact with the people and the world around them. The severity of these obstacles can vary widely with each autistic individual. There is no cure for ASDs. However, there are a number of programs that are designed to help someone with an ASD strengthen their particular areas of difficulty. 

Remember that there is a wide range of severity when it comes to ASD, and every intervention plan must be unique to your child.

Choosing a Program — The Right Questions to Ask

When trying to determine the best treatment programs for your child, you’re going to have to work with others—medical specialists, therapists, and program managers. You may not know exactly what questions to ask all these different experts. Here are a few sample questions provided by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) that may help you get started:

  • How successful has the program been for other children?
  • How many children have gone on to placement in a regular school and how have they performed?
  • Do staff members have training and experience in working with children and adolescents with autism?
  • How much individual attention will my child receive?
  • How is progress measured? Will my child's behavior be closely observed and recorded?

Intervention Programs

The programs for treating autism and other ASDs are referred to as intervention programs. Intervention should begin as early as possible after diagnosis. It’s generally agreed that if an intervention is put into play early, chances of success are improved.

The programs can use a variety of techniques, including:

  • positive reinforcement to encourage appropriate behavior or use of skills
  • breaking basic tasks into a number of simple steps to aid in understanding the task
  • providing visual cues to indicate where the student is supposed to be and what they are supposed to do in a particular situation

It’s up to you and your child’s doctors to choose the best program. Even then, it will have to be customized for your child’s particular needs. You may also combine two or more of the common intervention programs.

Regardless of the specifics of the program, it will require the involvement of your entire family and a team of professionals. Treatment may take place in your home, in a special school or center, or a combination of both.

Some of the more common intervention programs are listed below.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

This type of intervention is based on behavioral teaching. It uses a three-step process to teach:

  1. An antecedent: This is a verbal or physical stimulus.
  2. A resulting behavior: This is the child’s response (or lack of response) to the antecedent
  3. A consequence: Depending on the behavior, this could be a positive reinforcement (if the resulting behavior is desired) or no reaction (for undesired behavior).

ABA targets specific behaviors, usually the skills needed to function effectively in social settings. Skills are broken down into small, manageable pieces, so that the child can build on what they have learned in a natural environment.

ABA techniques also form the core of many other programs.

Floortime

This intervention works on the premise that a child with autism will learn best when a parent or teacher engages him or her at the level of the child. In other words, let the child lead. The parent or teacher will get down on the floor with the child. The thinking is that a child will be more open to learning in a comfortable space.

Early Start Denver Model (ESDM)

ESDM is a relationship-based approach that uses the same teaching techniques as applied behavior analysis. ESDM can be started for children as young as 12 months of age. The ESDM follows a set curriculum that includes:

  • cognitive skills
  • language
  • social behavior
  • imitation
  • fine and gross motor skills
  • self-help skills
  • adaptive behavior

Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT)

PRT used to be called the Natural Language Paradigm. It’s based on the same principles of ABA, but focuses on “pivotal” behaviors like motivation and initiation of communication with others. Proponents of this technique believe that improving these pivotal behaviors can help improve a wide range of other behaviors.

Relationship Development Intervention (RDI)

RDI attempts to modify behavior using positive reinforcement. It focuses on six core objectives:

  • emotional referencing
  • social coordination
  • use of declarative language
  • flexible thinking
  • relational information processing
  • hindsight/foresight

Children begin by working with a parent or teacher, and are eventually matched with a peer at a similar level of development.

TEACCH

The TEACCH approach is based on capitalizing on what the program calls the “culture of autism.” This refers to the strengths and difficulties that those with an ASD typically share. For example, TEACCH seeks to make particular use of the preference most autistic children have for processing information visually. TEACCH usually occurs in classroom settings. In the classroom, the physical and social environments are structured specifically to help the individual child more easily understand daily activities.

SCERTS

The SCERTS approach combines aspects of ABA, TEACCH, Floortime, and RDI. Unlike other programs, SCERTS focuses on helping children initiate their own communication in everyday activities. The goal of SCERTS is to help children gain the ability to apply learned skills in a spontaneous way. Ultimately, this helps them learn to navigate new situations.

Drug Treatments

A number of drugs are available that can help those with an (ASD). These don’t treat or cure the disorder itself, but aid with many of the symptoms related to the condition.

Great care should be taken in the use of these medications for ASDs. Many of them have side effects.

Some of these drugs are prescribed “off-label” for ASD patients. According to the NIMH, This means that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved the drugs for use for ASD, but doctors can prescribe them if deemed appropriate.

Below are some of the behaviors listed by the NIMH for which your child’s doctor may prescribe drugs.

Aggressive Behavior

The FDA has approved risperidone (Risperdal) as a treatment for aggression, temper tantrums, and attempts at deliberate self-injury in autistic children ages 5 to 16.

Other drugs used for treating aggression and behavioral problems in autistic children include, olanzapine (Zyprexa), haloperidol (Haldol), and thioridazine (Mellaril).

OCD and Depression

Fluoxetine (Prozac) and sertraline (Zoloft) are both used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression.

Seizures

Two drugs that treat seizures are carbamazepine (Tegretol) and valproic acid (Depakote).

Hyperactivity

For hyperactivity, there are stimulants like methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta) and dextroamphetamine (Adderal).

Other Drugs

Drugs such as diazepam, lithium, and lorazepam have also been used to treat various symptoms of autism. Talk to your doctor about which drugs, if any, might help with your child’s particular symptoms.

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