What Is the Best Treatment for Autism?

How to Choose an Autism Treatment

There are many treatments for autism, but there is no cure. There is no single treatment that can alleviate the core symptoms of autism either. However, there are therapies and medications that can have a significant positive impact on children and adults on the autism spectrum—as well as therapies and medications that can actually cause harm.

For most families, choosing the best therapies is a process of trial and error, with final decisions depending on a variety of factors such as availability, cost, and the abilities, challenges, and interests of the person on the autism spectrum.

In general, children with autism are best served by therapies that:

  • start as early as possible
  • are provided intensively (for multiple hours per week)
  • are based on research
  • have clear goals and milestones
  • are provided by a qualified therapist who connects well with your child (and with the parent)
  • engage a child in a positive way (your child should enjoy therapy)
  • address the core symptoms of autism: social skills, sensory dysfunction, emotional regulation, verbal and non-verbal communication, physical challenges, play skills, attentional issues, mood issues, or focus

There are plenty of options available, and many therapies that can work well for any given child.

Therapies Covered by School or Insurance

Autism therapies, when paid for out of pocket, can be prohibitively expensive. Top-notch therapists can charge $60 to $100 an hour (in some cases even more), and many therapies are most effective when provided for many hours a week. For many families, the "best" autism therapies are those that are both available and free or low-cost.

While there are dozens of autism therapies, only a few are provided through schools or paid for through medical insurance. While these are not necessarily the only effective therapies they are, for obvious reasons, the most popular. If you're low on funds, these therapies can be the best available. Often, in combination with other treatment types, they can be quite effective.

Medications

Many people with autism take medications that reduce anxiety, increase focus, or manage aggression. These medications, prescribed by medical doctors, can be a cost-effective means of managing difficult challenges. In some cases, medication isn't necessary, but when it is helpful, it can make a world of positive difference for a child on the autism spectrum.

Be sure to work closely with your healthcare provider or doctor to monitor the effects of the medications, however. With all types of treatment (including medications), what works well for one person on the spectrum may not work well—or may even be harmful—for another person.

Speech Therapy

Speech therapists address a range of issues for autistic children. They help people who begin speaking later than average to acquire spoken words. In addition, they also help higher functioning children to ask and answer questions, use appropriate prosody and body language, and, for more advanced learners, recognize jokes, sarcasm, teasing, and friendly "joshing."

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapists for children with autism are usually provided through the school and/or paid for through insurance. Today's occupational therapists are not just handwriting specialists. Many have a wide range of skills and training that allow them to work on sensory challenges, interactive play skills, cooperative interaction, and much more.

Physical Therapy (PT)

PT is usually prescribed by a medical doctor. as a result, it is usually paid for by health insurance and/or provided through the school. At first glance, it may not seem obvious why a child with autism would need physical therapy—but the reality is that most autistic people have low muscle tone and compromised motor skills and coordination.

PTs can also work with children in a natural environment such as a playground or gym, helping them to build the skills they need to join in physical games.

Behavioral Therapy

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) and related therapies are usually considered to be the "gold standard" of autism-specific treatment. Many districts offer ABA classrooms or provide ABA therapists as part of a special needs school program. ABA can teach skills and behaviors that are critically important to success in a typical school or work environment.

Cognitive Psychology

For some high functioning children with autism, a psychologist with autism experience can help sort out feelings, suggest techniques for handling frustrations, or otherwise help a child cope with the reality of being different.

Autism Therapies Worth Paying For

Your child is receiving therapies through school and/or health insurance, but you feel she's not progressing at a reasonable rate. Or, you've watched the school therapists at work and feel that their approach is not right for your child. You may have even asked the school for specific therapies and they haven't been helpful in providing outside resources.

If any or all of these issues sound familiar, you may want to consider paying out-of-pocket for therapies that can be helpful depending on your child's interests and learning style.

Developmental Therapy

While behavioral therapies work on skills and behaviors, developmental therapies can help your child build emotional skills and relationships, expand abstract thinking, and bond with others. Some of the best-regarded developmental therapies including Floortime, Relationship Development Intervention (RDI), and Social-Communication, Emotional Regulation, and Transactional Support (SCERTS).

Parents will have to pay for these therapies out of pocket at first, but the good news is that most parents will be able to provide the therapies themselves once they get the hang of how they work.

Social Skills Therapy

While some schools offer rudimentary social skills therapy, it's a rare school that provides in-depth social thinking programs. Social thinking is tough for autistic children because it requires "theory of mind," or the ability to imagine what another person might be thinking or feeling.

There are many different social skills and social thinking programs available; it's worth your while to explore them before making a selection. The right social skills group can help your child make connections, build friendships, and find a social circle.

Arts Therapies

If your child is interested in music, visual arts, acting, or dancing, she may respond well to arts therapies. While you will have to pay out of pocket, you may find that arts therapies help your child to expand his boundaries and even build skills that can be used in settings such as band, drama club, or chorus.

Animal Therapy

From hippotherapy (therapeutic horseback riding) to support animals and service dogs, animal therapy has been found to have a significant positive impact on children with autism. Animal therapy can help children build confidence, expand their social skills, and even increase core body strength. Some animal therapies are paid for by some insurance policies but expect to pay some amount out of pocket.

Nutritional Therapy

In some cases, children with autism do have intolerances to certain foods. In other cases, they are such picky eaters that they lack essential vitamins and minerals in their diets. It may be worth consulting your pediatrician to check into any diet-related challenges that may be impacting your child's physical comfort or mental state.

Autism Therapies to Avoid

Since there is no known cause or cure for autism, there are many so-called "treatments" or "cures" out there that may sound like they will be effective—but in reality, some of these are hoaxes that can be useless or even risky. Many such treatments are built around debunked or unproven theories about the cause of autism.

Some popular theories include the idea that autism is caused by vaccines, by poor diet, by a lack of a particular nutrient, by pathogens or parasites in the gut, and more. The outcome of using these therapies or treatments can be devastating, both physically and financially.

Chelation

Chelation (using drugs to remove heavy metals from the body) was developed to treat lead and mercury poisoning. Some parents use chelating drugs to treat their children with autism based on the belief that their autism is a result of heavy metal poisoning. Chelating drugs are potent and can be risky, especially when used by amateurs. They are also useless for improving the symptoms of autism.

MMS Enemas

MMS is a chemical compound that contains some of the same chemicals as bleach. This so-called "miracle cure" actually has no research to back its claims to cure any physical or mental conditions. It was popularized by various testimonials of participants, but due to the fact that it contains bleach, this is really a potentially lethal substance to use.

Detox Baths

Detoxifying clay baths are supposed to draw toxins out of autistic children, thus curing of them of the disorder. Although less risky and less costly than other ineffective therapies, clay baths will simply make your child's skin a bit smoother. They will have no impact on all on his autism.

In addition to these particularly popular methods of targeting people with autism or people who have a loved one with autism to spend their money on ineffective treatments, there are dozens of similarly pricey, useless, and potentially risky products available on the market.

A few further examples include hyperbaric oxygen chambers, stem cell therapy, raw camel milk, and homeopathic medicines. While some of these are more expensive and riskier than others, all are based on flawed ideas about what causes or treats the symptoms of autism.

More Treatment Types

As you start to research treatments, you will find many types of behavioral and developmental therapy, social skills training, and so forth. Many of these are legitimate therapies that are based on research but include unique elements developed by individual therapists or groups. A few examples include:

  • Pivotal Response Training: a form of behavioral therapy that is used in natural settings and incorporates some developmental elements
  • Social Stories: a tool created to support social skills training programs
  • Social Thinking: a curriculum created by a well-regarded therapist to work on specific challenges facing autistic children in social settings.

All of these, and many others (the Denver Model, SCERTS, and more) are worth exploring if you have the interest and money to do so and feel that the particular approach may be appropriate for your child.

A Word From Verywell

Before diving into any type of autism treatment, always do basic research to be sure the approach is built on a real understanding of autism, is supported by legitimate research and is provided by well-regarded therapists. If you are unsure, ask your pediatrician or a therapist whose judgment you trust—solely relying on other parents or in-person or online personal testimonials for medical information can lead to poor decisions.

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Article Sources
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