What is autism?

Autism spectrum disorder is a condition that impacts the way a person behaves, socializes, or interacts with others. It used to be broken down into different disorders such as Asperger’s syndrome. It’s now treated as a condition with a wide-ranging spectrum of symptoms and severity.

While it’s now called autism spectrum disorder, many people still use the term “autism.”

There’s no cure for autism, but several approaches can help to improve social functioning, learning, and quality of life for both children and adults with autism. Remember that autism is a spectrum-based condition. Some people may need little to no support, while others may require intensive therapy.

It’s also important to keep in mind that a lot of the research related to support for autism focuses on children. This is largely because existing research suggests that support is most effective when started before age 3. Still, many of the options designed for children can help adults as well.

Read on to learn more about the different approaches to treating autism.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is one of the most widely used options for both adults and children. It refers to a series of techniques designed to encourage positive behaviors using a reward system.

There are several types of ABA, including:

  • Discrete trial training. This technique uses a series of trials to encourage step-by-step learning. Correct behaviors and answers are rewarded, and mistakes are ignored.
  • Early intensive behavioral intervention. Children, generally under the age of five, work one-on-one with a therapist or in a small group. It’s usually done over the course of several years to help a child develop communication skills and reduce problematic behaviors, including aggression or self-harm.
  • Pivotal response training. This is a strategy used in someone’s everyday environment that teaches pivotal skills, such as the motivation to learn or initiate communication.
  • Verbal behavior intervention. A therapist works with someone to help them understand why and how humans use language to communicate and get things they need.
  • Positive behavior support. This involves making environmental changes to the home or classroom in order make good behavior feel more rewarding.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that can be effective in helping children and adults. During CBT sessions, people learn about the connections between feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. This may help to identify the thoughts and feelings that trigger negative behaviors.

A 2010 review suggests that CBT is particularly beneficial in helping people with autism manage anxiety. It can also help them to better recognize emotions in others and cope better in social situations.

Social skills training (SST) is a way for people, especially children, to develop social skills. For some people with autism, interacting with others is very difficult. This can lead to many challenges over time.

Someone undergoing SST learns basic social skills, including how to carry on a conversation, understand humor, and read emotional cues. While it’s generally used in children, SST may also be effective for teenagers and young adults in their early 20s.

People with autism are sometimes unusually affected by sensory input, such as sight, sound, or smell. Social integration therapy is based on the theory that having some of your senses amplified makes it hard to learn and display positive behaviors.

SIT tries to even out a person’s response to sensory stimulation. It’s usually done by an occupational therapist and relies on play, such as drawing in sand or jumping rope.

Occupational therapy (OT) is a field of healthcare that focuses on teaching children and adults the fundamental skills they need in everyday life. For children, this often includes teaching fine motor skills, handwriting skills, and self-care skills.

For adults, OT focuses on developing independent living skills, such as cooking, cleaning, and handling money.

Speech therapy teaches verbal skills that can help people with autism communicate better. It’s usually done with either a speech-language pathologist or occupational therapist.

It can help children improve the rate and rhythm of their speech, in addition to using words correctly. It can also help adults improve how they communicate about thoughts and feelings.

There aren’t any medications specifically designed to treat autism. However, several medications used for other conditions that may occur with autism might help with certain symptoms.

Medications used to help manage autism fall into a few main categories:

  • Antipsychotics. Some newer antipsychotic medications may help with aggression, self-harm, and behavioral problems in both children and adults with autism. The FDA recently approved the use of risperidone (Risperdal) and apripiprazole (Abilify) to treat symptoms of autism.
  • Antidepressants. While many people with autism take antidepressants, researchers aren’t yet sure whether they actually help with autism symptoms. Still, they may be useful for treating obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and anxiety in people with autism.
  • Stimulants. Stimulants, such as methylphenidate (Ritalin), are generally used to treat ADHD, but they may also help with overlapping autism symptoms, including inattention and hyperactivity. A 2015 review looking at the use of medication for autism suggests that about half of children with autism benefit from stimulants, though some experience negative side effects.
  • Anticonvulsants. Some people with autism also have epilepsy, so antiseizure medications are sometimes prescribed.

There are countless alternative options that people try. However, there isn’t much conclusive research backing up these methods, and it’s unclear whether they’re effective. Some of them, such as chelation therapy, may also do more harm than good.

Still, autism is a wide-ranging condition that causes a variety of symptoms. Just because something doesn’t work for one person doesn’t mean it won’t help another. Work closely with a doctor when looking into alternative options. A good doctor can help you navigate the research surrounding these options and avoid potentially risky methods that aren’t backed by science.

Potential alternative options requiring more conclusive research include:

If you don’t feel comfortable talking about alternative remedies with your doctor, consider looking for another medical professional to help you find the right support.

Autism is a complex condition without a cure. However, there are a variety of therapeutic approaches and medications that can help to manage its symptoms. Work with your doctor to figure out the most effective support plan for you or your child.