There are three main types of treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): educational/behavioral interventions, medication, and alternative therapies. Most clinicians prefer to start with non-medical therapies to manage symptoms that hinder social and academic success and lead to a turbulent home life.
The mainstay ASD treatment is behavioral therapy, which is the main tool by which children with autism learn new skills. Even when children’s behavior is “good,” this type of therapy can be beneficial to improve language and social abilities. Social skills training can teach people with ASD how to interpret gestures, eye contact, tone of voice, humor, and sarcasm. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help to manage obsessive behavior and anxiety. Ongoing behavioral therapy is linked with better outcomes, even when symptoms are mild.
Early intervention therapy involves the entire family working with professionals to improve social, learning, and communication skills. Parent-training programs enable families to learn how to best cope with ASD, and teach parents how to administer therapy at home. There are a variety of parent-training programs available, including Floortime (derived from the Developmental Individual-difference relationship-based model), TEACCH autism program, the Lovaas Model (based on the Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)), and the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM).
Parents of children with autism say that posting lists, rules, and schedules help to keep them organized. Checking off checklists can give people with ASD a sense of accomplishment. Physical exercise is also a good intervention for children on the autism spectrum, who seem to have boundless energy. Channeling excess energy into an independent physical activity, such as swimming or karate, allows them to burn it off without the pressures of socializing. Schools with friendship groups or lunch bunches can help kids to learn the basics of social interaction.
If behavioral and educational interventions aren’t sufficient, medication may help. Children with ASD can be more sensitive to side effects, and should be monitored carefully when prescribed stimulants (the most common class of medications used to treat ADHD). A pediatrician may refer a child with ASD to a psychiatrist or a psycho-pharmacologist as the dose is increased. A class of medicines called atypical antipsychotics is often effective for motor restlessness, repetitive behaviors, and sleep disturbance in children with autism. These include aripiprazole (Abilify), quetiapine fumarate (Seroquel), and risperidone (Risperdal). The latter medication is the only one of the three that is FDA-approved for treating behaviors associated with autism. A good response to an atypical neuroleptic may eliminate the need for a stimulant. Sometimes selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as fluoxetine and sertraline, are used “off-label” to help with behavioral disturbances that may occur in children and adults with ASD1.
Every child with autism will benefit from the support of a developmental and behavioral pediatrician or a child psychiatrist with training in the autism spectrum. Seeing a specialist who understands what it’s like to live with an active autistic child is a bonus for parents, as well. Teens with autism can improve using transitional services that will guide them into independence and employment during adulthood with decreased parental support. Many people significantly improve with intensive early intervention and treatment. A small percentage improves to the point that they no longer qualify as being on the spectrum. Others become able to score in normal test ranges, and can function socially but still have mild symptoms. Many live independent lives, develop fulfilling relationships, and work with the appropriate supports. Learn more about alternative treatments for ASD.
1National Institute of Mental Health. “Medications for Autism.” PsychCentral. (2013). Web. (http://psychcentral.com/lib/medications-for-autism/)