Interventions, Treatments, & Your Child
Autism is a complex developmental disorder, and education, both of children directly and of parents and teachers, remains the primary form of treatment (National Research Council 2005).
Before attempting to evaluate the different treatment options available, we strongly recommend that you gain a solid understanding of the core deficits and challenges presented by Autism Spectrum Disorders, along with how they specifically relate to your child’s learning and communication skills. Understanding your child, the disorder, and how he/she/they relates to and interprets the world around them is a crucial starting point in evaluating your options and choosing effective strategies.
Interventions & Treatment at The Autism Project
The Autism Project offers training and workshops to help families and caregivers to better understand the diagnosis and learn practical strategies to support individuals with ASD, family support that enables families to navigate systems of care, and social skills groups that are led by speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, mental health practitioners, and other professionals, and that support participants in developing skills that promote positive social interactions.
Many families and caregivers also find it helpful to speak with their providers, and to seek out local agencies and national organizations that offer resources and education for families.
The below list provides information about some of the interventions and treatments available for ASD; many on the list can also be appropriate for other developmental disabilities. This list is not exhaustive.
Please note that The Autism Project does not provide medical advice or endorse specific interventions or treatments as appropriate for all children with ASD or any other diagnosis. To gain insight about approaches that have informed our programs and way of thinking, How We Train and Consult is a good place to start.
Behavior & Communication Interventions for ASD
*Some descriptions were adapted from those provided by the CDC and Autism Speaks.
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
ABA has become widely accepted among health care professionals and used in many schools and treatment clinics. ABA encourages positive behaviors and discourages negative behaviors in order to improve a variety of skills. The child’s progress is tracked and measured.
There are different types of ABA, listed below. More information about these types of ABA is available on the CDC website.
- Discrete Trial Training (DTT)
- Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI)
- Pivotal Response Training (PRT)
- Verbal Behavior Intervention (VBI)
Developmental, Individual Differences, Relationship-Based Approach (DIR; also called Floortime)®
DIR® focuses on emotional and relational development (feelings, relationships with caregivers). Research demonstrates that it strengthens fundamental communication and relationship abilities for children with ASD and other special needs. These improvements in the core deficits occur because of Floortime®’s foundation in child development.
Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication-Handicapped Children (TEACCH)®
TEACCH® is an evidence-based service, training, and research program for autistic individuals, families, and professionals, based at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. TEACCH® uses a method called Structured Teaching that is based on the unique learning needs of individuals with ASD. Specifically, Structured Teaching capitalizes on the skills of individuals with ASD by using visual cues to teach skills in the classroom, as the visual mode is often their strongest modality.
More About TEACCH & Structured Teaching
Occupational Therapy/ Sensory Integration Therapy (OT)
OT teaches skills that help the individual live as independently as possible. Therapy might focus on dressing, eating, bathing, and/or relating to other people. This type of therapy also helps the individual process sensory information, like sights, sounds, and smells. Sensory integration therapy can be helpful for a child who is bothered by certain sounds or does not like to be touched.
Speech-Language Therapy helps to improve the individual's verbal, non-verbal, and social communication skills. The overall goal is to help the individual to communicate in more useful and functional ways. In some cases, therapy might improve the individual's spoken language; in others, the focus of therapy might be to learn to communicate using an alternative method.
Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)®
PECS® uses picture symbols to teach communication skills. The goal of PECS® is teach children a self-initiated, fast, and functional communication system. Some people have opposed the use of PECS® to teach children with ASD to communicate, arguing that these methods would hinder the development of spoken language. However, several studies have shown that PECS® can help individuals develop verbal language in some cases, and can decrease tantrums and behaviors that prevent socialization.
Medications & Treating Co-occuring Conditions
Currently, no medications exist that cure ASD or treat its main symptoms. But there are medications that can help some individuals with related symptoms. For example, medication might help manage high energy levels, inability to focus, depression, or seizures.
It is not uncommon for ASD to be accompanied by other physical and/or mental health conditions, such as:
- GI problems
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive Disorder
- Feeding or sleeping issues
If diagnosed with a co-occuring condition, medication may be prescribed to treat the symptoms of that condition.
Dietary Treatments & ASD
Dietary treatments are based on the idea that there is a brain-gut connection, and that some food allergies or lack of vitamins and minerals cause or exacerbate symptoms of ASD. Some parents and medical professionals think that dietary changes make a difference in how their child acts or feels.
Some dietary treatments have been developed by reliable therapists, but many of these treatments do not have the scientific support needed for widespread recommendation. An unproven treatment might help one child, but may not help another.
Consult with a medical provider before making changes to your child's diet.
Additional Supportive Interventions & Therapies
Cognitive Behavior Therapy
This type of therapy focuses on the connection between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Together, the therapist, the individual, and/or the parents come up with specific goals for the course of therapy. Throughout the sessions, the individual learns to identify and change thoughts that lead to problem feelings or behaviors in particular situations.
Conscious Discipline® is a trauma-informed approach recognized by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) and the National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices (NREPP). It is an innovative social-emotional learning program that teaches children and adults social-emotional skills.
The Autism Project provides training in Conscious Discipline® approaches and methodologies! Learn more.
Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA)
A systematic collection of information about an interfering behavior, designed to identify functional contingencies that support the behavior. FBA consists of describing the interfering or problem behavior, identifying antecedent or consequent events that control the behavior, developing a hypothesis of the function of the behavior, and/or testing the hypothesis.
Social Skills Training
Group or individual instruction designed to teach learners ways to appropriately interact with peers, adults, and other individuals. Most social skills group meetings include instruction in basic social concepts, role-playing or practice, and feedback to help learners acquire and practice communication, play, or social skills to promote positive interactions with peers.
The Autism Project Social Groups
Social narratives are narratives that can reduce the uncertainty of social situations by describing the situation in detail, highlighting relevant cues, and offering examples of expected responses. Social narratives are individualized according to learner needs and typically short, and can include pictures or other visual aids to improve comprehension.
Our Family Support Team offers Parent to Parent, a 5-week training series that covers Social Narratives and how to construct them to support your child/the child you care for. Learn More.
Social Thinking® is a social skills curriculum developed by Michelle Garcia Winner. The curriculum helps people with ASD, developmental disabilities, and social-communication challenges figure out how to think in social situations. Individuals are taught to observe and think about their own and others’ thoughts and feelings. They also learn the connection between thoughts, feelings and behaviors. The idea is that kids need to develop social “thinking” before they can use social “skills.” The focus on thinking can help individuals understand how to interact more effectively with others.
A visual support refers to any visual display that supports the learner in engaging in a desired behavior or skill without prompting. Examples of visual supports include pictures, written words, objects within the environment, arrangement of the environment or visual boundaries, schedules, maps, labels, organization systems, and timelines.
Our Family Support Team can help you create visuals to support your child.
The Autism Project Family Support
References & Additional Resources
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)