Treatments and Therapies for Autism

As you start to dig deeply into the literature on autism treatments, you'll find dozens of available options. Which are the "best" treatments? As the professionals will tell you over and over again, every child's needs are different.

Perhaps most importantly, even the "best" treatments may or may not make a big difference in your child's life. And while many people do gain skills and do very well, the goal of treatment is not to "cure" autism. 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.

It's easy to dive into research and come up gasping for air. Literally hundreds of autism treatments are available, and—unfortunately—precious little research is available about which are legitimate, useful, or appropriate for your child or family. But some tried-and-true options can get you started on a positive path. 

Autism Treatments Provided by Agencies and Schools

If you are an American and have a child under school age who has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, he is 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 five or six, similar treatments will be offered through your school district and other agencies.

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."

If your child is not offered these services, it's up to you to ask why.

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.

There are many forms of autism treatment, but most fall into one of four categories that specifically focus on the core challenges of autism. Within these, however, there are many sub-categories and options. The categories include:

  • Behavioral Therapies
  • Developmental and Play-Based Treatments
  • Medical Treatments
  • Alternative Treatments

Behavioral Therapies: Behavioral therapy (usually ABA) is 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 taks. 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: Floortime, SCERTS, and relationship development intervention (RDI) are all considered to be developmental treatments. This means that 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.

Medical Treatments: Many treatments for autism involve the use of pharmaceuticals and/or nutritional supplements. None of these medications can cure autism, but many can relieve symptoms. For example, Risperdal can improve behaviors, while Zoloft or other antidepressants can relieve anxiety. These medications are prescribed by mainstream doctors and are funded by insurance.

"Alternative" Treatments: Because the causes and potential cures for autism are shrouded in uncertainty, many so-called "alternative" treatments are available. Most are intended to alleviate problems which, according to scientific researchers, are either non-existent or have no causal relationship to autism. These include chelation (chemical removal of heavy metals from the body), treatment in hyperbaric oxygen chambers, and use of bleach-based enemas. These "treatments" are risky, extremely controversial, and, in many cases, very expensive.

In addition to these 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.

Treating Teens and Adults With Autism

While common knowledge suggests that autism is a young child's disorder—and that only young children can be successfully treated for autism—the truth is quite different. People don't "grow out of" autism, and in recent years, many adults and teens have been diagnosed with high-functioning autism. Adults and teens can be treated for autism, and many do quite well.

A Word From Verywell

Though we would love to tell you that there is a map for the journey that is treating someone with autism, that is not the case. We can't promise you that finding the right course will be easy or without trial and error. What we can promise you, however, is that 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
  • American Psychological Association. Autism Treatment Options. American Psychological Association website.

  • Centers for Disease Control. Autism Spectrum Disorders: Treatments. Centers for Disease Control website.