There is no cure for autism; however, with appropriate treatment and education, many children with the disorder can learn and develop. Early intervention often can reduce challenges associated with the disorder, lessen disruptive behavior, and provide some degree of independence.
Treatment depends on the individual needs of the patient. In most cases, a combination of treatment methods is more effective. Autism usually requires lifelong treatment.
Occupational therapy and physical therapy are sometimes used to treat autism. Occupational therapy helps improve independent function and teaches basic skills (e.g., buttoning a shirt, bathing). Physical therapy involves using exercise and other physical measures (e.g., massage, heat) to help patients control body movements.
Behavior management therapy uses rewards, or positive reinforcement, to teach autistic kids desirable behaviors and reduce ones that cause problems. Although there are many behavioral therapies for autism, applied behavior analysis (ABA) is the most widely accepted approach. ABA can help children with autism learn how to interact with others, play with toys, and improve their verbal and nonverbal skills. ABA is also effective for eliminating problem behaviors such as self-injury or stimming (repetitive, self-stimulatory behaviors such as twirling, finger flicking, and rocking).
While behavioral therapies such as ABA can be very successful in treating autism, they require time and commitment. As ABA therapist Megan Kenny writes in Maximizing Autism Therapy, “ABA is not two hours three times a week — it is a frame of mind.” To get the most benefit out of behavior therapy, autistic kids need intensive one-on-one training. The general recommendation is 25 to 40 hours of therapy per week with a skilled behavior modification specialist. Parents should also learn the basic techniques of behavior therapy so they can work with their kids at home.
Speech, physical, and occupational therapies
Depending on your child’s needs, you may want to seek speech-language therapy, physical therapy, or occupational therapy. These therapies can address many of autism’s challenges:
- Speech and language therapy – Speech and language therapy addresses the communication difficulties that children with autism often struggle with. The focus in speech therapy is usually on improving verbal skills and language ability. However, speech and language therapy is also used to teach nonverbal communication skills and social skills that will help autistic kids communicate better with others.
- Physical therapy – Physical therapy helps children with autism improve their posture, balance, coordination, and strength. Physical therapists can work with young autistic children on basic motor skills such as sitting independently, walking, running, and jumping. They may also help older autistic kids learn more complex movements such as throwing, catching, or kicking a ball in order to participate in sports, recess, and other play activities.
- Occupational therapy – Occupational therapy helps children with autism spectrum disorders learn the skills they need for living. An occupational therapist may teach kids basic self-care skills such as getting dressed, brushing their teeth, or feeding themselves. Occupational therapy is also used to increase sensory integration in kids who underreact or overreact to stimuli such as noise or touch.
Autism and Computers
Many kids with autism spectrum disorders enjoy using computers. This may be because computers, unlike people, are predictable and straightforward.
Computers can be used to teach autistic kids many behaviors and skills, and they can also lead to increased focus and attention span—all while the children are having fun!
Assistive technology is any item or equipment that helps a disabled person function better. In autism treatment, assistive technology is commonly used as a part of speech therapy, physical therapy, and occupational therapy. Occupational therapists in particular often incorporate assistive technology into their work.
Assistive technology for an autistic child could include low-tech items such as a weighted vest to reduce stimming and increase focus, or picture cards to encourage nonverbal communicate. At the high-tech end of the spectrum, assistive technology for autism may use educational software or computers that are controlled by a special touch screen.
Nutritional therapy and diet changes
Nutritional therapy for autism is a controversial area. Some alternative doctors recommend specialized diets and supplements to treat autism, but at the present time there is little scientific evidence to support their effectiveness. On the other hand, many parents of autistic children believe that dietary interventions have helped their kids.
The bottom line is: while nutritional therapy and dietary restrictions may not cure autism or its core symptoms, they can be a helpful complementary treatment. Many autistic children have chronic gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea, stomach aches, gas, and constipation. The pain and discomfort of these gastrointestinal problems can naturally lead to irritability, anger, and other challenging behavior. Eliminating certain foods and adding vitamin supplements may improve digestion in some kids. If an autistic child feels better, he or she is less likely to act up.
- Gluten-free, Casein-Free Diet (GFCF) — Some autistic kids are sensitive or allergic to gluten (a protein found in wheat and other grains) and/or casein (a protein found in dairy products). If medical tests reveal that your child suffers from these sensitivities, you may want to consider a gluten-free, casein-free diet. The GFCF diet is very restrictive (no bread, cereal, milk, ice cream, or cheese for starters) and can also have side effects, so it’s a good idea to consult with a nutritionist or a doctor before putting your child on it. A nutritionist can help you develop a diet plan that includes the essential vitamins, protein, and fiber your growing child needs. This is particularly important if your kid is a picky eater
- Vitamin supplements — Autistic children may have nutritional deficiencies that contribute to their symptoms. In these cases, vitamin supplements may help. Supplements used for autism treatment include vitamin B, magnesium, vitamin C, omega-3, and cod liver oil.
There are no medications that can cure autism or treat its core symptoms. However, certain medications are sometimes prescribed to treat specific problems, such as hyperactivity, self-injurious behaviors, aggression, and tantrums. With these disruptive symptoms minimized, autistic children may be better able to focus and learn.
Medication for children with autism can cause significant side effects and problems with long-term use. Furthermore, as most of these drugs have not been well-tested in children, they should always be used with caution. If you’d like to look into drug treatment for autism, be sure to talk with your child’s doctor about all the options, the risks involved, and what warning signs to watch for.
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