Having your child diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder is overwhelming. The diagnosis may come as a complete surprise or you may have had suspicions and tried for months or years to get an accurate diagnosis. In either case, the next question is what to do. Unfortunately, many families must navigate the landscape of treatment acronyms (OT, SLP, PT, ABA, VB, DIR, GFCF) largely on their own, without adequate resources or information about options. And most do so remarkably well. Connecting with local or online parent support groups helps make the early part of the journey much easier. It is a difficult time, but early intervention can make a big difference. Exploring treatment options, identifying available resources and creating an action plan will help your child and your family.
Autism treatments can be broken down into four broad categories: Behavioral, Sensory, Communication and Biomedical interventions
Behavioral therapy is commonly refered to as ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis). Through decades of research, the field of behavior analysis has developed many techniques for increasing useful behaviors and reducing those that may cause harm or interfere with learning. Research has demonstrated that ABA techniques can produce improvements in communication, social relationships, play, self care, school and employment.
ABA is widely recognized as a safe and effective treatment for autism. Many states require insurance to pay for ABA therapy. Objective scientific studies have confirmed the benefits of two methods of comprehensive behavioral early intervention, the Lovaas Model based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and the Early Start Denver Model. Parents and therapists also report success with other commonly used behavioral therapies, including Floortime, Pivotal Response Therapy and Verbal Behavior Therapy.
ABA therapy is not without controversy. An articulate and vocal community of adults with autism, many of whom received ABA as children, say that the therapy is harmful and resent the efforts to make people with autism ‘normal,’ a goal articulated in the 1960s by Lovaas. They advocate for the acceptance of neurodiversity — the idea that people with autism should be respected as naturally different rather than abnormal and needing to be fixed.
Today, few therapists practice ABA as described by Lovaas. Modern ABA is more flexible and is fundamentally an approach based on breaking down a skill and reinforcing through reward. Ethical ABA practitioners use positive behavior supports to encourage desired behaviors rather than aversives to discourage or punish undesirable behaviors.
Many people with autism have challenges in processing sensory information such as movement, touch, smell, sight and sound. Sensory Processing Disorder (also called Sensory Integration (SI)) therapy identifies such disruptions and uses a variety of techniques that improve how the brain interprets and integrates this information. An Occupational Therapist (OT) will create an individualized program that matches sensory stimulation with physical movement to improve how the brain processes and organizes incoming information. Sensory Integration therapy often includes equipment such as swings and trampolines. An OT may also prescribe a "sensory diet," that may include use of this equipment, a brushing protocol, or weighted or compression clothing.
Occupational therapy often includes sensory integration. Other times it is delivered as a stand-alone therapy addressing skills children need for their "occupation" as a child: playing, communicating, socializing, eating and taking care of themselves.
Because communication is one of the core deficits in autism, most children with a diagnosis of ASD will receive speech therapy from a Speech Language Pathologist (SLP). Some individuals on the autism spectrum do not speak, while others love to talk but have difficulty using conversational speech and/or understanding the nuances of language and nonverbal cues when talking with others. After an evaluation of your child, the speech therapist will set goals that may include spoken language and/or learning nonverbal communication skills such as signs or pictures. In each case, the goal is to help the person communicate in more useful and functional ways.
Many people with autism may suffer from sleep disturbance, gastrointestinal (GI) distress, allergies or seizures. The medical community debates whether these are symptoms of autism or co-occuring conditions. Either way, addressing these conditions can improve attention, learning and social behaviors. A child that does not feel well cannot participate fully in school, therapy or life! Pain and distress can also lead to aggression, especially in non-verbal children who cannot communicate their discomfort in any other way. Treating underlying symptoms just makes sense.
Some clinicians approach treating patients with autism from a medical point of view. Biomedical treatments of autism focus on nutrition and supplementation. Trusted healthcare practicioners with experience treating children with autism can help our kids feel better and get better. The best way to find a trustworthy clinician is to talk with other parents in your area and connect with local and online support groups.
This information is solely for educational purposes, not medical advice. It is not a substitute for care by trained medical providers. The Autism Community Store is not engaged in the practice of health care or the provision of health care advice or services. For specific advice about care and treatment, please consult your physician.