Psychology Is Behind Most Treatments for Autism

How psychology can make a positive difference

Psychology is the study of the human mind. This social science has made huge contributions to the understanding and treatment of autism. There are a number of ways in which psychologists can and do play a role in helping children and adults with autism. It's important to note that psychiatry, a closely related field, also involves medical interventions (pharmaceutical treatments).

Child talking to therapist
izusek / E+ / Getty Images

Psychotherapy is built around the use of the spoken word. For verbal people on the spectrum, psychotherapy can be a very useful tool for managing symptoms such as anxiety or compulsions. It can also help people with autism to better understand how their actions and reactions are perceived by others.

Applied behavior analysis is a form of behavioral therapy, which is based on traditional psychology. ABA is often used successfully to treat individuals with autism. ABA, however, is not talk therapy; rather it is a carefully structured process wherein an individual is taught skills using rewards to reinforce correct answers or preferred actions. Typically, ABA is provided by therapists with specific ABA training.

Both psychotherapy and other forms of therapeutic interventions are used to improve psychological functioning through behavioral means. These therapies can be completed individually and in groups at both schools and outpatient clinics. Children and parents can participate.

Developmental psychology is a branch of psychology that deals with child development and explores typical and atypical development, questions of nature versus nurture, and related topics. Developmental psychology is the basis for several well-known treatments for autism, including SCERTS, Floortime, and Relationship Development Intervention (RDI).

Some other areas of psychology that are often helpful for people on the spectrum and their families include:

  • Drama therapy
  • Play therapy
  • School/educational psychology
  • Family psychology

What Does a Psychologist Do For People With Autism?

Psychologists are often involved in the process of diagnosing both children and adults with autism. They may also recommend appropriate treatment programs, and/or support the process of evaluation, benchmarking and ongoing assessment.

Developmental and child psychologists work with children to help them engage with others through play, and learn skills such as joint attention (doing something WITH rather than NEAR someone else).

School psychologists may work with autistic students to help them engage with their peers, manage stress, or handle difficult interactions with bullies or general teasing. They may also work with parents and teachers to develop strategies for school success.

Psychologists work with both children and adults with autism to treat issues such as social anxiety, depression, and perseverative behavior (doing or saying the same things over and over again). Psychologists also work with individuals on the autism spectrum to help them manage self stimulation (stims), "autopsy" social interactions, understand social cues, and manage school and work relationships.

Behavioral psychologists are in high demand within the autism community. They may evaluate autistic behaviors to better understand their meaning and purpose, develop behavioral (ABA) programs to teach a wide range of skills, or help families to manage aggression and other problematic behaviors in the home.

Where Can I Find a Qualified Psychologist?

Because there is no such thing as an "autism psychologist," there is no directory of psychologists skilled in working with children or adults with autism. To find an appropriate psychologist, parents may want to start at a local children's hospital with an autism center or program; at a regional autism center; or in the school district. Adults with autism can do a local online search, but may be better served by connecting with autism self-advocacy organizations such as

2 Sources
Verywell Health 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.
  1. Defilippis M, Wagner KD. Treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents. Psychopharmacol Bull. 2016;46(2):18-41.

  2. Politte LC, Howe Y, Nowinski L, Palumbo M, Mcdougle CJ. Evidence-Based Treatments for Autism Spectrum Disorder. Current Treatment Options in Psychiatry. 2015;2(1):38-56. doi:10.1007/s40501-015-0031-z

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.