While there’s no cure for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a wide range of treatments can help children gain better communication skills, reduce sensory integration issues and improve their overall ability to learn.
Patricia Evans, M.D., Ph.D., a Professor of Pediatrics, Neurology and Psychiatry; Director of the Neurodevelopmental Disabilities Residency Program at University of Texas at Southwestern School of Medicine (UTSW) and Neurodevelopmental Disability clinical programs at UTSW and clinical Co-Director for the Center for ASD and Developmental Disabilities (CADD) at Children’s Health℠, says non-medication therapies are often the first treatments that children under the spectrum often receive before the use of medication.
Because each child is unique, they often have very different needs related to ASD. Therapies can be used in a variety of different combinations to address the individual needs of each child.
Applied behavioral analysis (ABA)
Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) is the gold standard of ASD care.
“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 beginning to reimburse for this therapy as well, and Medicaid can pay for several hours of ABA therapy each week.
Some programs also train parents to provide ABA at home, including the Texas Autism Play Project. These types of programs ask parents to commit to providing 20 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.
Licensed speech-language pathologists are also a key member of the team. Pathologists may meet with a child once or twice 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 therapists help children gain skills of daily living, from buttoning their shirts to feeding themselves. For children with ASD, occupational therapists may also work on sensory integration issues, such as issues with certain textures. Occupational therapy helps children gain more independence and learn how to do many tasks for themselves.
Some children with ASD have gross motor skill difficulties, for example trouble walking or sitting. Poor muscle tone may be present, particularly in children who experience both ASD and epilepsy. Physical therapists help children build muscle and learn how to make big movements smoothly.
A warning about alternative therapies
In the search for therapies for a child, many parents may be swayed to try natural therapies such as B12 injections or “naturaceuticals.” However, unless these therapies have been studied and researched thoroughly, it is best to approach such offers with great caution. Parents should avoid any therapy which might be not only 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. When an article, journal or book about ASD is peer-reviewed, that means the information 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.
The Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities 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.
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