Although there is no cure for autism, most children with ASDs show improvement in their symptoms with appropriate, intensive intervention. Some children make a great deal of progress and are able to succeed in mainstream classrooms and live as independent, successful adults. However, most individuals with ASDs continue to require some level of support over time, ranging from minimal to significant. How much help an individual requires depends on whether they have other developmental or medical problems (mental retardation, epilepsy, genetic syndrome, significant behavioral problems) and how well their language develops.
Research shows that early diagnosis and intervention (such as in the preschool period) are more likely to result in major positive effects on later skills and symptoms. There is no single definitive treatment that works for all children with ASDs. Treatments are usually aimed at minimizing a child's symptoms while maximizing their learning. Treatment options include behavioral therapy (such as Applied Behavioral Analysis), DIR/Floortime, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, and sensory integration therapy. Some children with ASDs require medications to help with problem behaviors such as aggression, inattention, and sleep problems.
For children younger than 3 years of age, therapies are usually coordinated through Early Intervention (EI) programs. These programs are designed to provide appropriate therapies and support for children with developmental challenges including the ASDs. Your child may qualify for additional ASD-specific therapies which will be coordinated by Early Intervention. EI is a free service and you can call and request an evaluation without a referral from your child's provider.
For children older than 3 years of age, treatments are usually coordinated through your local public school system. You should contact your local school to access Special Education services for your child with autism.
No matter what therapy services your child receives it is important that it is high quality.
Here are some qualities to look for in good therapy:
- Therapy should focus on social and communication skills
- Therapy should use positive behavior strategies
- Therapy should set goals and assess progress regularly
- There should be regular supervision for therapists
- The therapist should work with your child's individual needs and interests
- Therapy should involve the whole family
- Therapy services should have experienced staff that is trained in working with children with Autism Spectrum Disorders
Autism experts commonly agree that intervention programs supported by solid research are an important indicator of effectiveness. We do not endorse any particular interaction-based treatment program, but want you to be aware of some of the options. We recommend you consult your doctor when considering new treatment interventions that may put the health of an individual at risk.
Some of the treatment programs that focus on working intensively and one-on-one with children are:
- Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
ABA is a one-on-one, intensive, structured teaching program based on the ideas of behavior modification and involving reinforced practice of different skills. You may also hear it called Discrete Trial Therapy (or DTT).
- Stanley Greenspan's Developmental, Individual-Difference, Relationship-Based (DIR) Therapy (also called "Floortime")
DIR is an alternative to the behaviorism approach that is based more on relationships. The Interdisciplinary Council on Developmental and Learning Disorders (founded by Stanley Greenspan) has a parent-to-parent resource guide you might find helpful.