How Autism Is Treated

Every person with autism has different needs, so finding the best treatment options will always be individual. The goal is not to cure autism, but to help the person gain skills and have a better chance in life. A person with autism will be a person with autism for their entire lives—just as a tall person will be tall, or a blind person will be blind. This is an area where there are many unsupported treatment claims, so it can be tricky to navigate. But some tried-and-true options can get you started on a positive path. 

Specialist-Driven Procedures

In the U.S. children under school age who have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, are eligible for early intervention services (EI). These are free, in-home and/or preschool-based programs that include supported educational programs and therapies. If your child is older than 5 or 6, similar treatments will be offered through your school district and other agencies. If your child is not offered these services, it's up to you to ask why.

Most of the time, your child will be provided with at least the following treatments at some level (free of charge):

  • Speech TherapyIf your child is non-verbal, this will likely focus on basic communication skills; if she is verbal, it may focus more on speech "pragmatics" (the ability to use language in a social setting).
  • Occupational Therapy: This can range from handwriting and sensory integration to play and social skills therapy, depending on the therapist and the amount of time available.
  • Physical TherapyIdeally, a physical therapist will work on gross motor skills in a social setting such as gym or recess.
  • Social Skills TherapyUsually offered by a speech or occupational therapist, social skills therapy teaches children with autism (usually in group situations) how to interact appropriately by sharing, collaborating, taking turns, asking and answering questions, and so forth.
  • Your child may also receive applied behavioral analysis (ABA), either individually or in the context of an "autism classroom."

Private Therapies

Once you've set up a basic treatment program for a child with autism, you'll probably want to dig deeper. That's because schools and early intervention programs are very clear that, while they must provide services, they're not required to offer the best services. As a parent, it's up to you to figure out what the best services are and how to provide them to your child.

Behavioral therapy (usually ABA) is one of the oldest and most fully researched treatment specifically developed for autism. ABA is a very intensive system of reward-based training that focuses on teaching particular skills and behaviors, such as everyday tasks. If any autism-specific therapy is offered by your school and/or covered by your insurance, this will probably be the one. There are multiple forms of behavioral therapy, though some (such as pivotal response therapy) may not be available near you or funded by your insurance.

Developmental therapies include floortime, SCERTS, and relationship development intervention (RDI). They build from a child's own interests, strengths, and developmental level to increase emotional, social, and intellectual skills. Developmental therapies are often contrasted to behavioral therapies, which are best used to teach specific skills such as shoe tying, tooth brushing, etc. Play therapy and recreational therapy are often grouped with developmental therapies.

Prescriptions

Medications can't cure autism, but many can relieve symptoms. These medications are prescribed by mainstream doctors and are funded by insurance.

Anxiety and Depression Medications

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are prescribed for anxiety, depression, and/or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). These include:

  • Prozac (fluoxetine) for both depression in children age 8 and older and OCD in children 7 and older.
  • Lexapro (escitalopram) for kids with depression that are age 12 or older.
  • Luvox (fluvoxamine) for kids age 8 and older with OCD
  • Zoloft (sertraline) for children age 6 and older with OCD
  • Anafranil (clomipramine) for kids age 10 and older with OCD.

Wellbutrin (bupropion) works differently and may be prescribed for adults with depression, but is not approved for pediatric use.

The FDA has issued an advisory to patients, families, and health professionals to closely monitor adults and children taking antidepressants for signs of suicide. This is especially important at the beginning of treatment or when doses are changed.

Medications for Behavioral Problems

Antipsychotic medications may be recommended if behaviors are dangerous or out of control. The newer types are generally preferred. Risperdal (risperidone) is FDA-approved for children age 5 and older, while Abilify (aripiprazole) is approved for kids age 6 and up. Both are FDA-approved to treat irritability in kids with autism.

Older antipsychotic medications include haloperidol, thioridazine, fluphenazine, and chlorpromazine. They can have serious side effects such as sedation, muscle stiffness, and abnormal movements.

Home Remedies and Lifestyle

In addition to professional treatments, some families choose to provide their autistic children with art therapies, animal therapies (horseback riding, service dogs, swimming with dolphins, etc.), craniosacral massage, homeopathy, and more. Few of these are well-researched relative to the core symptoms of autism, but many families believe these therapies make a positive difference for their children.

Children with autism often have aversions to various types of foods, and people with autism are more likely to have food sensitivities, food allergies, or gastrointestinal symptoms. It is challenging to ensure your child is getting adequate nutrition, and gastrointestinal issues may exacerbate autism behaviors and symptoms. It is good to talk to your doctor, who may refer you to a dietitian for advice.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) summarizes the evidence of studies of various alternative therapies for ASD.

  • No evidence: Secretin, hyperbaric oxygen, chelation, and antifungal agents have no evidence that they help people with ASD, and they may be dangerous.
  • Some evidence: Melatonin might be of use for people with ASD who have sleep problems.
  • Unclear: Omega-3 fatty acids, acupuncture, mindfulness-based practices, massage therapy, oxytocin.

Special diets have been suggested for people with ASD, including a gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) diet. No solid, replicated research suggests that autism is caused by particular foods or can be cured through nutritional changes of any kind. A high-fat, very low carbohydrate ketogenic diet is used for some types of epilepsy. While it might be used for individuals with autism who have seizures, the person needs to be carefully monitored by a health care team for their nutritional status and other side effects.

The U. S. Food and Drug Administration warns that there are serious safety issues associated with chelation products, and their use is not supported by research. Use of them can result in dehydration, kidney failure, and death, even if done under the care of a doctor.

A Word From Verywell

There is no single road map for the journey that is treating someone with autism, that is not the case. Finding the right course isn't easy, and usually requires trial and error. However, knowledge is power—and perseverance matters. Advocate for your child, or yourself, as much as you can. Help is available that can improve life with autism. And remember—if you're caring for a child, teen, or adult with autism, you have needs too.

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Article Sources

  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Early Intervention for Autism. Reviewed January 31, 2017.


  2. Lofthouse N, Hendren R, Hurt E, Arnold LE, Butter E. A review of complementary and alternative treatments for autism spectrum disorders. Autism Res Treat. 2012;2012:870391. doi:10.1155/2012/870391

  3. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Wellbutrin (bupropion hydrochloride) [labeling].

  4. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Risperdal [labeling]. Revised September 2009.

  5. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Abilify (aripiprazole) [labeling]. Revised August 2016.

  6. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). 7 Things To Know About Complementary Health Approaches for ASD. Updated April 08, 2016.


Additional Reading