Treatment for Autism

There is no cure for autism; however, with appropriate treatment and education, many children with autism spectrum disorders can learn and develop. Early intervention often can reduce challenges associated with autism, lessen disruptive behavior, and provide some degree of independence.

Treatment depends on the needs of the individual. In most cases, a combination of treatment methods is more effective. Autism spectrum disorders may require lifelong treatment.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), treatment for autism can include the following:

Occupational therapy helps improve independent function and teaches basic skills (e.g., buttoning a shirt, bathing). Physical therapy involves using exercise and other physical measures (e.g., massage, heat) to help people with autism spectrum disorders control body movements.

Behavior Modification

There are several methods of behavior modification that are used to treat inappropriate, repetitive, and aggressive behavior and to provide autistic people with skills necessary to function in their environment. Most types of behavior modification are based on the theory that rewarded behavior is more likely to be repeated than behavior that is ignored. This theory is called applied behavior analysis (ABA).

Behavior modification often involves highly structured, skill-oriented activities that are based on the individual's needs and interests. It usually requires intense, one-on-one training with a therapist and extensive caregiver involvement.

Sensory integration therapy is a type of behavior modification that focuses on helping people with autism spectrum disorders cope with sensory stimulation. Treatment may include having the individual handle materials with different textures or listen to different sounds.

Social interaction is often affected by limited emotional development that is common in autistic people. Play therapy is a type of behavior modification that is used to improve emotional development, which in turn, improves social skills and learning. Play therapy involves adult-child interaction that is controlled by the child.

Social stories can also be used to improve undeveloped social skills. Stories are designed to help people with autism spectrum disorders understand the feelings, ideas, and points of view of others, or to suggest an alternate response to a particular situation. They also may be used to help people with autism understand and cope with their own feelings. Behavioral therapists can teach caregivers how to develop social stories.

Communication Therapy

Communication therapy is used to treat autistic people who are unable to communicate verbally, or to initiate language development in young children with the disorder. Speech therapy may be used to help people with autism gain the ability to speak.

Picture exchange communication systems (PECS) enable autistic people to communicate using pictures that represent ideas, activities, or items. The individual is able to convey requests, needs, and desires to others by simply handing them a picture.

Dietary Modifications

Autism is not caused by diet and the use of dietary modifications and supplements to treat the disorder is controversial. Changing the diet or adding vitamin supplements may improve digestion and eliminate food intolerances or allergies, which may contribute to behavioral problems in some people with autism spectrum disorders.

Researchers have found elevated levels of proteins found in wheat, oats and rye (gluten) and casein (protein in dairy products) by-products in people with autism, suggesting that the incomplete breakdown or excessive absorption of these substances may affect brain function. Eliminating foods that contain gluten and casein from the diet may cause side effects and should not be done without the advice of a qualified health care provider.

Studies have shown that vitamin B, magnesium (improves the effects of vitamin B), and cod liver oil supplements (which contain vitamins A and D) may improve behavior, eye contact, attention span, and learning in autistic people. Vitamin C has been shown to improve depression and lessen the severity of symptoms in people with autism.

Autism Prognosis

People with autism have normal life expectancies. With early intervention and appropriate treatment, many autistic people can function productively and attain some degree of independence. Some people with autism spectrum disorders require lifelong assistance.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 29 Feb 2000

Last Modified: 01 Sep 2015