While there's no cure for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), there are many treatments that can help your child. Therapies can help children with ASD gain better communication skills, reduce sensory issues and improve their overall ability to learn.
Patricia Evans, M.D., Ph.D., Clinical Co-Director for the UT Southwestern and Children's Health℠ Center for Autism Care and Professor at UT Southwestern, says non-medication therapies are often the first treatments that children with ASD receive before the use of medication.
Every child is unique, and they often have different needs related to ASD. Therapies can be used in different ways to meet the individual needs of your child.
ABA therapy for autism
Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) is the gold standard of ASD care. During ABA therapy, you and your child's therapist work together with your child.
"This behavioral immersion technique has been shown to consistently be the single best approach," says Dr. Evans. "It's more than just speech or behavior therapy; it's immersive therapy. A therapist and parent work together with the child and provide continuous language and behavioral cues throughout the day, every day."
ABA can be costly, but today more schools recognize its benefits and are beginning to provide this therapy. Insurance companies are also beginning to reimburse for this therapy, and Medicaid can pay for several hours of ABA therapy each week.
Some programs also help train parents to provide ABA at home. These types of programs ask parents to commit to providing a certain number of hours of work or play time with their child. A therapist comes to the house to work with parents and their child, helping parents implement their own ABA.
Speech therapy for autism
Children with ASD may have trouble when speaking with others. There are therapists who work with your child just to build these skills. These therapists are called "speech-language pathologists" or SLPs. An SLP may meet with your child 1-2 times a week, often at school, to work on communication skills.
"Most kids with ASD who speak, speak in a monotone," says Dr. Evans. "In speech therapy, they practice prosody or melody of speech. They practice how to come to a complete stop in a sentence. Speech therapy helps the child learn conversational speech."
Occupational therapy for autism
Occupational therapy can help children with ASD become more independent. An occupational therapist, or OT, will help your child with skills they need to do every day. This includes many things from buttoning their shirts to feeding themselves.
Some children with ASD have sensory integration issues, such as difficulty with things like certain fabrics or loud noises. OTs can also help your child with these issues if needed.
Physical therapy for autism
Some children with ASD have problems with gross motor skills. Gross motor skills are used for walking, sitting and standing up, and other things we use our larger muscles for. Poor muscle tone may be present, mainly for children who have both ASD and epilepsy. Physical therapists help children build muscle and learn how to make big movements smoothly.
A warning about alternative therapies for autism
You may be wondering about a natural or alternative therapy you heard about, such as B12 injections or "naturaceuticals." However, unless a therapy has been studied thoroughly, it is best to approach it with great caution. These therapies might not only be expensive, but potentially harmful as well.
Dr. Evans says parents should be wary of any therapy that insurance does not cover or therapies with no peer-reviewed research. Peer-reviewed means an article, journal or book has been carefully assessed by many doctors. These doctors ensure the research was safe, well-designed and evidence-based. Parents can find peer-reviewed studies online through the National Institutes of Health.
You can also talk with your child's doctor about any alternative therapy you may wonder about. They can give you some information on how well it has been researched.
Dr. Evans is a Professor of Pediatrics, Neurology and Psychiatry and Director of the Neurodevelopmental Disabilities Residency Program at University of Texas at Southwestern School of Medicine (UTSW) and Neurodevelopmental Disability clinical programs at UTSW. She is also the Clinical Co-Director for the Center for Autism Care at Children's Health.
The Center for Autism Care is an interdisciplinary program offering comprehensive patient care and translational medicine for individuals with autism and related neurodevelopmental disorders. Learn more about our program and services.