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3 Rules for Navigating Your Child's Autism Treatment From a Parent Who Has

Mother and son using tablet and paper while doing son's autism therapy

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Key Takeaways

  • There are many kinds of autism treatment, from medical to behavioral and nutritional. Regardless of the style you pursue for your child, children should enjoy the therapy.
  • Parents should be allowed to observe and/or participate in therapy. Practitioners should answer parents’ questions.
  • When evaluating medical treatment for their child, specifically, parents should be sure research is published in a peer-reviewed journal. 

April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day. But for people with autism and their families, every day is autism awareness day. Rates of autism in children have risen sharply during the past 25 years, and autism is now diagnosed in 1 in 54 children in the U.S., according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

For parents of children with autism, it can be difficult to choose among the many treatment options. Some of the available treatments are medical and and dietary while others are behavioral. Each child with autism is unique and each will respond to treatments in different ways. 

Finding treatment is also urgent. As studies from the Columbia School of Public Health and Cambridge University show, people with autism who have more difficulty communicating are extremely vulnerable to injury, abuse, and significantly shorter lifespans than the general population. Early intervention can help lessen these risks.

What Is Autism?

Autism is a condition with no known cause that causes challenges with social skills, speech, communication, and behavior. It is a spectrum disorder. Those who have it may be very articulate people who need support navigating social situations but can lead fully independent adult lives. Other people with autism cannot speak and will need 24/7 care for their entire lives. In the past, these extremes were labeled high-functioning and low-functioning.

Truly harmful treatments, like chelation therapy and bleach therapy, are the exception. Many autism treatments simply cost a great deal of money, take time and energy, and end up not being helpful.

Here are guidelines that can help parents weigh the pros and cons of any treatment.

Treatment Research Should Be Published in Reputable, Peer-Reviewed Medical Journals

Any treatment for autism should be evaluated as rigorously as a treatment for any other condition. It is critical to make sure that a journal is a real, independent publication and not simply part of the treatment practitioner’s website.

“Be careful evaluating persons or programs that make exaggerated claims involving ‘cures’ and ‘miracles.’ If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true,” Steven Gross, PhD, retired director of the International Clinic for Cognitive Development of The Feuerstein Center in Jerusalem, Israel, tells Verywell. “Progress can be made, but only with lots of understanding, years of skillful treatment and support, and repeated opportunities for enjoyable and responsible applications in the person’s daily lives. Meaningful change takes a lot of effort, a lot of patience, and a lot of time. Notice that I called the child or the adult with a developmental disorder a ‘person,’ not a ‘patient.’"

Look for research published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. These journals distribute each article to a number of qualified experts in the field to get their response before publication. This is a time-consuming process but one that ensures that experts can go over the research in great detail to evaluate it. It is very difficult for a person who has not studied medicine to evaluate medical research on their own.

Although this system is not perfect—experts do make mistakes—it still provides an important safeguard.

A well-crafted study should feature a control group—people who were studied but who did not receive the treatment—as well as tests given at the beginning of the study and the end to measure differences as objectively as possible. Another crucial component of a good study is that participants should be representative of the population who will benefit from the treatment. If a medication is supposed to help people communicate more easily and the study only includes people who are already able to communicate through speaking, the results will not be meaningful for the non-speaking population.

Studies should include a significant number of participants: One or two are not enough.

Therapists Should Be Able to Answer All Your Questions

Practitioners should be able and willing to explain everything to concerned parents, whether the treatment is medical or non-medical.

“Anyone who offers a treatment should be willing to answer parents’ questions,” Professor Daniel Orlievsky, Director and Professor of the Postgraduate International Diploma in Autism Spectrum, Neurodevelopment and Neurodiversity, at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, tells Verywell. "Don’t be afraid to ask about anything that doesn’t make sense. The practitioners should be able to explain what they do. At present, the trend is to increasingly involve parents or caregivers in therapies. In fact, there are therapies mediated by parents or caregivers."

There should be no reason that parents cannot be as involved in the treatment as possible and parents should proceed with caution if a therapist does not allow them to observe the treatment. 

“The most important people in the child’s life are the child’s parents," Gross says. "Meaningful insights and interventions taking place in therapy sessions need to be continually shared personally with the child’s parents, and not just in generalized reports. The child’s parents need to be involved in the therapy whenever possible. They can then share what works well, and what doesn’t work well, on a timely basis, with other members of the family and with the child’s other teachers and therapists."

Parents may not be able to be present for all therapies, but both Gross and Orlievsky say video recording from outside the therapy room should be made available and explained. If not, the therapist should be able to explain why.

"Developmental progress is greatly improved when there is a skilled, collaborative, therapeutic team involved in all key aspects of the child’s life,” Gross says.

A Child's Reaction to Treatment Matters

Children, especially those who are young or do not speak, cannot choose what kinds of treatments they receive. However, while they may not love every moment of a treatment, they should enjoy most of the therapy in which they participate.

A key part of a therapist’s task is to engage the child’s attention and to become an ally. Therapy can and should be a joyful experience as much as is humanly possible. Behavioral therapy, in particular, should be structured and demanding, but in order for the child to flourish, it should also be fun and carried out in an atmosphere of warmth and concern. 

"I do not believe that many of the psychosocial, learning, and behavioral problems [associated with autism] need to be treated as ‘medical conditions,’" Gross says. "Of course, medical issues often associated with autism such as epilepsy, metabolic issues, or gastrointestinal problems should certainly be evaluated and treated medically. Treating functional mental and emotional disorders involved in autism medically may be helpful in short-term crisis situations, but in my experience, they are seldom meaningful long-term solutions.”

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) is the preferred treatment in the United States and in many parts of the world. But the reward-based therapy, which focuses on teaching some behaviors while eliminating others, has been criticized in recent years by those who are on the spectrum and able to communicate for themselves. Their feedback includes that it's boring, can be cruel, and causes a negative effect on self-esteem. At the same time, there's a lack of solid evidence demonstrating that it works.

Whether parents choose ABA or another method, they should look for practitioners whom their children enjoy seeing, which will make for a happier experience for everyone involved. Good therapy cannot be practiced without good therapists.

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3 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. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data & statistics on autism spectrum disorder. Updated September 25, 2020.

  2. Guan J, Li G. Injury mortality in individuals with autismAm J Public Health. 2017;107(5):791-793. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2017.303696

  3. Hirvikoski T, Mittendorfer-Rutz E, Boman M, Larsson H, Lichtenstein P, & Bölte S. Premature mortality in autism spectrum disorderBritish Journal of Psychiatry. 2016;208(3):232-238. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.114.160192