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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects communication and behavior. “Neurodevelopmental” means the disorder is related to development of the nervous system.

Typically, the signs appear in early childhood, generally between 12 to 24 months. But diagnosis may not occur until later, especially if symptoms are subtle.

Since symptoms vary from person to person, medical experts talk about ASD as being on a spectrum, rather than consisting of a fixed set of symptoms that all people will experience.

Most experts agree that there is no cure for autism. That’s why many of them approach ASD in a way that looks at the management of symptoms or development of skills and support, which includes behavioral, psychological, and educational therapy.

Healthcare providers who treat ASD agree that starting supportive therapy as soon as possible is important.

According to Dr. Ashanti W. Woods, MD, a pediatrician at Mercy Medical Center, early intervention is proven to be associated with the best outcomes.

“Younger children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder will typically have their needs assessed and met using their state’s early intervention services, which many states refer to as an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP),” explained Woods.

The goal, he said, is to help toddlers communicate better, minimize anxiety in social settings, and lessen challenging behaviors. These services are usually offered up to the age of three years old.

When autism spectrum disorder ranges from mild to severe, Woods said most, if not all, treatment strategies will address and involve some sort of speech therapy, behavior therapy, and occupational therapy.

As children get older and enter school, Woods indicated many of them can benefit from specialized Individualized Education Plans (IEP), with the same goals of improving communication, behavior, socializing, and self-care.

Additionally, Woods explained that adolescent psychiatrists may also consider medicines to address conditions that are frequently seen in ASD including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiance disorder (ODD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or depression.

When it comes to specific treatment options, one treatment approach many therapists, schools, and healthcare providers use is applied behavior analysis (ABA). The goal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is to encourage positive behaviors to teach and improve a variety of skills.

Other forms of treatment involve:

  • social skills training
  • sensory integration therapy
  • occupational therapy

While the process to find resources can sometimes feel overwhelming, remember there are trained people who can benefit both those with ASD and their loved ones.

Resources to remember

  • Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP)
  • Individualized Education Plans (IEP)
  • Psychiatrists and counselors
  • Occupational therapists
  • Speech and language therapists

Woods also noted that research studies are underway to investigate the effect of lifestyle (low-stimulation environments) and dietary modifications such as vegan or gluten-free diets on children with ASD.

“However, the medical community is awaiting these results to see if there are statistically significant outcomes associated with the aforementioned modifications,” he explained.

In addition to lifestyle and dietary modifications, researchers are also looking at several other studies such as the ability to detect autism during a pregnancy, the impact your genes have on an autism diagnosis, and the future of cord blood-derived therapies.

In addition to seeking professional support for someone with ASD, it’s also beneficial to understand how you can help support them while still taking care of yourself.

Here are some ways for you to help, support, and encourage the development of skills in your loved one.

Help them feel safe and loved

First and foremost in supporting someone with ASD is to help them feel safe and loved.

Read one dad’s perspective.

Communicate with your team

Communicating with the doctor, therapist, teachers, and other healthcare providers can help make your daily tasks a lot easier.

For parents, this can mean asking for suggestions to continue practicing the skills your child is learning in therapy, which makes it easier for them to be more successful.

Consider the environment

What you do at home can affect the severity of some symptoms. One suggestion is to keep the environment predictable and familiar. Another is to have a routine. It’s also a smart idea to minimize sensory input at home, such as noise and activity level.

Have on-the-go routines

When facing a new situation, go over in advance what might happen. This may help make the transition go a lot smoother. Bring comfort items along that are familiar.

Slow down

Communicate information in a simple, yet effective way. The more clear, concise, and concrete you can be, the better. And wait. Give them time to respond as you listen and observe.

For more on communicating with children, read this resource from the Raising Children Network in Australia.

Help encourage positive behavior

Consider using visual aids to help your child with schedules and daily tasks. Reinforce the behavioral techniques they’re learning in therapy. Celebrate the good stuff by recognizing and acknowledging abilities and strengths.

Stay up-to-date on current trends

Woods believes an important way parents can support a child with ASD is to arm themselves with resources and reliable information regarding autism from sites like autismspeaks.org and kidshealth.org.

Value neurodiversity

When caring for someone with ASD, it’s important to acknowledge and value neurodiversity. When you view ASD through this lens, it helps to remove the stigma that often comes with the diagnosis and allows you to acknowledge differences as normal rather than a disability.

Find an autism support group

Reaching out to other people in the community can help you learn new information, share tips and strategies to help manage situations, and feel supported as you connect through similar experiences.

Take time for yourself

Carve out time daily just for you. Even if it’s just a short amount of time to exercise, read, or spend time with a friend, self-care is a critical component to caring for someone.

While there is no cure for ASD, several treatment options are available, such as ABA, that can help people with ASD navigate daily situations and build skills. Find a supportive team of professionals to help you and your child navigate this journey.