How Autism Is Treated

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

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Autism, like other forms of neurodivergence, is not a disease that requires a cure. Autistic people may require various levels of support and may have other diagnoses that require treatment.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Traditionally, it has been seen as an illness that needs to be cured, but voices in the autistic community have called for a shift in this language, with an emphasis on providing appropriate support rather than seeing autism as something that needs to be "cured" or "fixed."

As Dr. Stephen Shore, an autistic person and advocate said, "If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism." Autistic people do not look one way, and even though there are specific traits associated with autism, these traits will manifest differently for each individual.

Many autistic people have comorbid diagnoses that require medical or psychiatric treatment, including seizure disorders, mental health diagnoses, and other medical conditions. Additionally, autistic people are at higher risk than the rest of the population for abuse, trauma, and high stress due to existing in a world with neurotypical expectations. Treatment and support exist to help with these issues.

Psychotherapy 

Autistic people may benefit from psychotherapy services for trauma or comorbid mental health conditions. Individual needs vary, and many traditional therapies have a history of trying to "cure" autism or force autistic clients to mask their symptoms, and so it is important to find providers who listen to the community and practice neurodiversity-affirming care.

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA)

Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) has previously been considered a "gold standard" in "treating" autism, but many autistic people have reported that their experience with this treatment is traumatic or abusive. Often, ABA includes treatment goals that prioritize masking autistic traits rather than supporting the autistic client, which can be stressful and lead to autistic burnout.

Speech Therapy 

Many autistic people struggle with verbal communication. They might either communicate selectively or be completely nonspeaking. Speech therapy with a certified speech-language pathologist can help in developing effective communication skills, which can help the autistic person get their needs met.

Assistive Technology 

Assistive technology uses devices such as electronic tablets to help autistic people communicate without using verbal language. 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 an autistic person. Physical therapy helps to improve skills such as coordination and balance and even walking and sitting comfortably. 

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy focuses on teaching autistic people to live as independently as they can, and it can help those who struggle with sensory overstimulation.

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

Medication

While there are not medications specifically for autism, many autistic people have comorbid difficulties that may benefit from medication. If an autistic person has anxiety, struggles with emotion regulation, or engages in self-harm behavior, they may choose to pursue medication intervention for their symptoms.

It is important to consider the autistic person's needs and preferences when considering any intervention. Some medications can help self-regulation and prevent unsafe behavior, and the goal of a medication regimen should be to bring out the best version of the medicated person rather than to medicate them into submission.

Risperidone 

Risperidone is FDA-approved to alleviate violent temper tantrums, and aggressive and self-harm behaviors. In a 2005 study on the effects of Risperidone on autistic children, 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 and can help autistic people who struggle with this. In a 2010 study on the effectiveness of Ariprpazole in treating irritability in autistic children and teenagers, researchers found the medication to be effective, particularly with symptoms associated with sensory meltdowns.

Antidepressant Medications

Antidepressants, such as Prozac and Zoloft, can help treat mood issues such as depression or anxiety. An autistic person who struggles with these symptoms may talk to their prescriber about antidepressant medication for these symptoms.

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

Some research has been done into alternative treatment options outside of psychotherapy and medications to support autistic individuals. However, presently there is no research to show that any of these treatments are effective and, in certain cases, they may even be considered harmful. These options should be considered with caution.

Chelation Therapy

This therapy aims to remove heavy metals from the body, which some theorized would reduce autistic behaviors. This approach promotes the false idea that autistic people need to be "cured." In addition, a 2015 review of studies on the effectiveness of chelation therapy found a risk of renal impairment, hypocalcemia, and even death.

Dietary Treatment 

Some researchers believe that making dietary changes could help with physical comorbidities for autism, such as gastrointestinal distress. It has also been suggested that dietary changes can alleviate sensory issues and decrease meltdowns.

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 this claim.

That being said, maintaining a healthy and balanced diet is important for the general well-being of any person.

How to Make Your Treatment Most Effective

Although autism does not need to be "fixed," many autistic people experience functional and psychological difficulties and deserve appropriate support. It is important to find the right treatment options and support that help the individual live their best life.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Amy Marschall, PsyD
Dr. Amy Marschall is an autistic clinical psychologist with ADHD, working with children and adolescents who also identify with these neurotypes among others. She is certified in TF-CBT and telemental health.

Originally written by
Toketemu Ohwovoriole
Toketemu Ohwovoriole

Toketemu has been multimedia storyteller for the last four years. Her expertise focuses primarily on mental wellness and women’s health topics. 

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