Discovering that your child has an autism spectrum disorder can be an overwhelming experience. For some, the diagnosis may come as a complete surprise; others may have had suspicions and tried for months or years to get an accurate diagnosis. In either case, a diagnosis brings a multitude of questions about how to proceed. A generation ago, many people with autism were placed in institutions. Professionals were less educated about autism than they are today and specific services and supports were largely non-existent. Today the picture is much clearer. With appropriate services and supports, training, and information, children on the autism spectrum will grow, learn and flourish, even if at a different developmental rate than others.
While there is no known cure for autism, there are treatment and education approaches that may reduce some of the challenges associated with the condition. Intervention may help to lessen disruptive behaviors, and education can teach self-help skills that allow for greater independence. But just as there is no one symptom or behavior that identifies individuals with autism, there is no single treatment that will be effective for all people on the spectrum. Individuals can use the positive aspects of their condition to their benefit, but treatment must begin as early as possible and be tailored to the child’s unique strengths, weaknesses and needs.
Throughout the history of the Autism Society, parents and professionals have been confounded by conflicting messages regarding what are and what are not appropriate treatment approaches for children and adults on the autism spectrum. We are not able to endorse any one treatment or program as each individual responds to treatment differently. Families should educate themselves about all available options and choose what they feel is in the best interest of their child and family.
The purpose of this section is to provide a general overview of a variety of available approaches, not specific treatment recommendations. Keep in mind that the word “treatment” is used in a very limited sense. While typically used for children under 3, the approaches described herein may be included in an educational program for older children as well. Treatments can divided into Nonmedical Interventions, which include behavioral and educational approaches as well as sensory, communication and other interventions, and Biomedical Treatments, which include modifications in diet, addition of vitamins and minerals, gut treatments, immune system regulations and others.
It is important to match a child’s potential and specific needs with treatments or strategies that are likely to be effective in moving him/her closer to established goals and greatest potential. The Autism Society does not want to give the impression that parents or professionals will select one item from a list of available treatments. A search for appropriate treatment must be paired with the knowledge that all treatment approaches are not equal; what works for one will not work for all, and other options do not have to be excluded. The basis for choosing any treatment plan should come from a thorough evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses observed in the child.
There are many established and new autism treatments and interventions in the domains of medicine, education and behavior. Biomedical interventions are those that attempt to focus on the physical needs of the person as a biomedical organism, addressing deficits or encouraging weaker pathways by medical or chemical means.
This summary surveys some of the common biomedical interventions in current autism treatment, such as the gluten-free/casein-free diet, addressing food sensitivities, use of supplements, gut treatments, sulfation and immune system regulation. These treatments are summarized by an engineering scientist who volunteers his time to several autism research and chapter activities, and who is also an experienced parent of a young adult with autism. Again, it is important to keep in mind that each person with autism is unique and may respond better to some treatments than others.
The dramatic increase in the number of individuals identified with ASD has focused increased attention on the types of interventions that can lead to opportunities for a high quality of life for those with unlimited potential. The Texas Statewide Leadership for Autism has compiled the Texas Autism Resource Guide for Effective Teaching (TARGET) that provides information on interventions for individuals with ASD. Recognizing the diversity of those with ASD, TARGET has a pragmatic approach to evidence-based practices. “The best measure of effectiveness of an intervention is whether it is effective for a particular individual. It is of utmost importance to collect and analyze data when using interventions with a student with autism. If an intervention results in positive change for a particular student and you, as an educational professional, have data to support that, then the intervention is evidence-based for that student.” A report by the Ohio State University Project Team titled Education Services for Military Dependent Children with Autism includes a comparison chart (created by Brenda Smith Myles, Ph.D) outlining and describing the evidence-based practices developed by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the National Autism Center and the National Professional Development Center on ASD.
Art and music are particularly useful in sensory integration, providing tactile, visual and auditory stimulation. Music therapy is good for speech development and language comprehension. Songs can be used to teach language and increase the ability to put words together. Art therapy can provide a nonverbal, symbolic way for the child to express him or herself.
Animal therapy may include horseback riding or swimming with dolphins. Therapeutic riding programs provide both physical and emotional benefits, improving coordination and motor development, while creating a sense of well-being and increasing self-confidence. Dolphin therapy was first used in the 1970s by psychologist David Nathanson. He believed that interactions with dolphins would increase a child’s attention, enhancing cognitive processes. In a number of studies, he found that children with disabilities learned faster and retained information longer when they were with dolphins, compared to children who learned in a classroom setting.
Again, as with all other therapy or treatment approaches, it is important to gather information and make an informed decision. Keep in mind, however, with most complementary approaches there will be little scientific research that has been conducted to support the particular therapy.