How Autism Is Treated

Cropped shot of a psychologist writing notes during a therapeutic session with her patient

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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a behavioral condition that can be difficult to diagnose or is diagnosed later in life. The difficulty in diagnosing the condition also makes treatment difficult, especially when signs and symptoms have evolved in severity.

There is currently no cure for ASD, but several treatments prevent the condition from disrupting the daily functioning of autistic people. In addition, early diagnosis and treatment of ASD have a great positive effect on the behavioral development of autistic people later in life. 

ASD affects people differently, so the signs and symptoms vary from person to person. Therefore treatment plans are tailored to each individual’s needs.

There are several types of treatment available to autistic people. The treatments fall largely under two main categories, psychotherapy and medication. 

Psychotherapy 

Several forms of psychotherapy can be used to treat ASD. Therefore, a structured program of different forms of therapy might be recommended by the healthcare provider. Some of the most effective are outlined below. 

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA)

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) is one of the most widely used forms of treatment for ASD. It makes use of a reward system to encourage positive behaviors and discourage negative ones in autistic people. It also teaches a person with ASD social skills and how to apply those skills in appropriate situations. There are different types of ABA. They include:

  • Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI): This is a form of ABA that’s very effective for young children. You’ll typically see it being used with kids who are younger than five years old. 
  • Discrete Trial Training (DTT): DTT is a form of ABA where the lessons taught are broken down into smaller steps. There are rewards for positive behaviors and answers to each step.
  • Early Start Denver Model (ESDM): ESDM is ideal for children between 12 and 48 months old. With ESDM parents or guardians of the child with ASD work together with the therapist and make use of play activities to teach social and language skills. 
  • Pivotal Response Training (PRT): PRT focuses on developing a child’s language, play, and social skills. The aim of the program is to help the child increase their motivation to learn and monitor their behaviors and communicate healthily with others. 

Speech Therapy 

Many people with ASD struggle with developing their communication skills. They might either communicate selectively or be completely non-verbal.

Speech therapy is important to help them develop these skills. A certified speech-language pathologist is typically hired to help a person with ASD, promote their communication skills. 

Assistive Technology 

Assistive technology uses devices such as electronic tablets to help teach autistic people how to communicate with others. One of the most popular programs is the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), which uses symbols and pictures to teach communication skills. 

Physical Therapy 

Physical therapy focuses on the motor skills of a person with ASD. Physical therapy helps to improve skills such as co-ordination and balance and even walking and sitting comfortably. 

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy focuses on teaching autistic people to live as independently as they can. Many people with ASD have severely underdeveloped social skills, which causes them to rely on family and friends for certain tasks, such as placing food orders or getting dressed.

Occupational therapy aims to arm a person with ASD with the skills to live a relatively normal life with minimal disruptions to their daily functioning. 

Medication

The FDA has approved certain medications to help ease the symptoms of ASD. These medications are often prescribed alongside psychotherapy routines. Medications are targeted at some of the more disruptive behavioral symptoms of ASD, such as aggression and self-harm. The following medications are most commonly prescribed.

Risperidone 

Risperidone was the first medication to be approved by the FDA for the treatment of ASD. It is typically prescribed to children and teenagers and helps to alleviate violent temper tantrums, aggressive and self-harm behaviors.

In a 2005 study on the effects of Risperidone on children with ASD, researchers found that Risperidone was effective in reducing disruptive behaviors in half of the children in the study.

Aripripazole 

Aripiprazole is primarily used to treat irritability in children and teenagers with ASD. In a 2010 study on the effectiveness of Ariprpazole in treating irritability in children and teenagers with ASD, researchers found the medication to be effective, particularly with symptoms associated with tantrums.

Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM) & Over-the-Counter (OTC)

Some research has been done into alternative treatment options outside of psychotherapy and medications for ASD. There are several alternative medications typically used for ASD; however, there’s no research to show that any of these treatments are effective and, in certain cases, may even be considered harmful.

Chelation Therapy

For instance, chelation (a treatment that involved removing heavy metals like lead from the body to treat ASD) is harmful.

A 2015 review of studies on the effectiveness of chelation therapy found that the risks far outweigh the benefits. Reports of renal impairment, hypocalcemia, and even death were found.

Dietary Treatment 

Some researchers believe that making dietary changes could help with symptoms of ASD. For example, it is their opinion that food allergies or a lack of certain nutrients and vitamins in a child’s diet could cause some symptoms of ASD.

Some parents had reported noticing positive changes when they made changes to their children’s diets. However, a 2017 review of 19 studies on the effectiveness of dietary treatments for autistic children found very little evidence to support the notion that simply making dietary changes could ease symptoms of ASD.

That being said, maintaining a healthy and balanced diet is important for the general well-being of a person; this is even truer for an autistic person.

How to Make Your Treatment Most Effective

Although there is no cure for ASD with the right treatment plan, someone with ASD can lead a relatively normal life.

To make sure your treatment is effective, it’s important to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep are crucial. 

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