There is no cure for autism but there are treatment options. Each person with autism is different and treatment plans need to be made specifically for each individual. Treatment should begin as early as possible. Occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech-language therapy may help children with needs in these areas.
Therapists use structured skill-oriented training sessions to help children develop social and language skills. One intervention of this type is Applied Behavioral Analysis. Family counseling for the parents and siblings of children with autism can help families cope with the challenges of living with an autistic child.
No medication has been shown to improve the underlying autism itself, but certain medications can help control symptoms. Antidepressants may be used for anxiety and antipsychotic drugs are sometimes used to treat severe behavioral problems. Risperidone is the only medication currently approved for this use in children.
There are a number of controversial therapies available, but few are supported by scientific studies. Parents be careful about adopting any unproven treatments. Sensory integration and vision therapy are common but there is little research supporting their effectiveness.
Some children with autism appear to respond to a gluten-free or casein-free diet. Gluten is found in foods containing wheat, rye, and barley while casein is found in milk, cheese, and other dairy products. Not all experts agree that dietary changes will make a difference, and not all studies of this method have shown positive results. If you are considering these or other dietary changes you will need to be sure that your child is still receiving enough calories, nutrients, and a balanced diet.
There are widely publicized treatments for autism that do not have scientific support, and reports of “miracle cures” that do not live up to expectations. If your child has autism, it may be helpful to talk with other parents of children with autism and autism specialists. Research in this area, which is progressing rapidly.
At one time, there was enormous excitement about using secretin infusions. Now, after many studies have been conducted in many laboratories, it’s possible that secretin is not effective after all. However, research continues.
APPLIED BEHAVIORAL ANALYSIS (ABA) is a program for younger children with an autism spectrum disorder that can be effective in some cases. ABA uses a one-on-one teaching approach that reinforces the practice of various skills. The goal is to get the child as close to normal developmental functioning as possible. ABA programs are usually done in a child’s home under the supervision of a behavioral psychologist. These programs can be very expensive, have not been widely adopted by school systems and can be hard to find in many smaller communities.
TEACCH is short for Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children). It was developed as a statewide program in North Carolina and uses picture schedules and other visual cues that help the child work independently and organize and structure their environments. Though TEACCH tries to improve a child’s adaptation and skills, it also accepts the problems associated with autism spectrum disorders.
For many children, symptoms improve with treatment and with age. Children whose language skills regress early in life—before the age of 3—appear to have a higher than normal risk of developing epilepsy or seizure-like brain activity. During adolescence, some children with autism may become depressed or experience behavioral problems. People with an ASD usually continue to need services and supports as they get older, but many are able to work successfully and live independently or within a supportive environment.