3 Ways to Treat Autism

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No two children with autism are the same. Different children will benefit from different types of treatment. One thing everyone has in common is that starting treatment early is important. This is called early intervention. It refers to treatment in the first three years of life. Because there is no cure for autism, early intervention is key to managing autism.

Many types of treatment are available for children with autism. They fall into three main categories:

  • Behavior and communication
  • Medication
  • Alternative approaches 

Behavior and Communication

Treatments that encourage good behavior, discourage bad behavior, and teach new skills work best for most children. These treatments give a child structure and direction. They can involve the whole family. 

Types of behavioral therapy include:

  • Discrete trial training (DTT). This method breaks down behavior teaching into small steps. Each step uses prompts and rewards to help the child learn good behavior. The Early Start Denver Model is a type of DTT for infants, toddlers and preschoolers. The Lovaas Model is a type of DTT for children ages 2 to 12 years old.

  • Early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI) is aimed at very young children, no older than 5 years old.

  • Pivotal response training (PRT) is for children who are able and old enough to communicate with others and keep track of their own behavior. PRT teaches better skills for talking with others and playing with other children. PRT can improve a child’s social skills.

Speech, occupational and physical therapy may also be part of behavior and communication treatment. Speech therapy helps children develop communication and language skills. Occupational therapy teaches skills like dressing, eating and bathing. Some children may need help dealing with sounds, sights and smells. Physical therapy can teach a child better skills for daily activities. These may include walking, sitting and balancing. 

Medication

Medications do not cure or control the main symptoms of autism, such as difficulty communicating with others. Medications may control related symptoms like high energy, poor attention, depression or seizures. The supplement melatonin may help regulate sleep. If depression is an issue, antidepressants may help. Anticonvulsant drugs may help control seizures. Stimulants may help with poor attention and hyperactivity. 

Medications also may make behavior and communication therapies easier. Two medications are approved to treat problem behavior in autism: 

  • Risperidone may help reduce temper tantrums, dangerous behavior, and self-injury. It is for children and adolescents.

  • Aripiprazole may help reduce irritability in children and adolescents.

Alternative Approaches

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies include diet changes and nutrition supplements. Many families report that some CAM therapies seem to work for their children. Researchers, though, say more study is necessary.

Some examples of CAM include: 

  • Omega-3 fatty acids. These are nutritional supplements. Some studies suggest they may help some autism symptoms.

  • Probiotics. These are healthy bacteria. Probiotics come as supplements and in some yogurts. Some people believe that adding good bacteria to the diet may reduce gastrointestinal problems in children with autism.

  • Gluten-free diet. This means eating no foods that contain the protein gluten. Gluten is in foods with wheat, rye or barley. Some parents say this diet helps reduce autism symptoms.

If you have a child with autism, ask the child's doctor about the various treatment options. Remember that what helps one child might not help another. But early intervention with behavior and communication therapies seems to work best. Medication and CAM treatments should be used only under the care of a doctor who's familiar with autism.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Aug 15
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Treatment. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/treatment.html
  2. Treatment Options. Autism Science Foundation. http://www.autismsciencefoundation.org/what-is-autism/autism-diagnosis/treatment-options
  3. Autism Spectrum Disorder – Treatment. National Health Service. http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Autistic-spectrum-disorder/Pages/Treatment.aspx
  4. Complementary Approaches for Treating Autism. Autism Speaks. https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/treatment/complementary-treatments-autism