Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a disorder that affects the way a person behaves and communicates. It is commonly diagnosed early during childhood, typically between 12 to 24 months old.
Because autism is a spectrum disorder, it affects different children in different ways. Hence, an intervention that works well with one child may be inappropriate for another. The time of treatment your autistic child receives depends on their individual needs.
There is no cure for autism. Several approaches exist, however, to help improve social functioning, learning, and quality of life for children with autism. Types of treatment available include behavioral, psychological, and speech therapy. Early intervention is crucial for speeding up your child’s development and lessening the symptoms of autism.
Educational interventions help children not only to learn academic subjects and gain life skills but also to improve communication, social skills, and spontaneity. Most educational intervention programs share the following features:
- Early intervention even without a definitive diagnosis
- Family involvement, including training of parents
- Interaction with neurotypical peers
- Intense intervention for at least 25 hours per week, throughout the year
- Visual-based training such as social stories and ABA
- A structure that involves clear physical boundaries and predictable routine to lessen distraction
Educational intervention can take place at an autistic treatment center, at school, or home. They can be lead by teachers, therapists, or parents.
Applied behavior analysis (ABA)
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a therapy that encourages positive behaviors and decreases that deter learning.
ABA therapy can help:
- Decrease problem behaviors
- Increase communication and language skills
- Improve focus, attention, memory, academics, and social skills
There are several types of ABA, including:
- Discrete trial learning uses a series of trials to encourage step-by-step learning. Correct actions and answers are rewarded, while mistakes are ignored. It teaches foundational skills, such as compliance, attention, and imitation.
- Early intensive behavioral intervention. Children work with a therapist over several years to help develop communication skills and reduce problematic behaviors, including aggression or self-harm. Parents and therapists use play to build positive and fun relationships.
- Pivotal response training is used in an everyday environment to foster the motivation to learn or initiate communication. Pivotal areas that are targeted include self-management, motivation, response to multiple cues, and social initiations. This therapy is play-based and led by the child. The aims include:
- Development of communication and language skills
- Increasing positive social behaviors
- Relief from disruptive self-stimulatory behaviors
- Verbal behavior intervention. A therapist works with the child to help them understand why and how humans use language to communicate and get their needs met. This approach encourages children with autism to learn language by associating words with their purposes to get their desired objects or results. It does not focus on words as merely labels (cat, car, etc.); instead, it teaches why we use certain words and how they are useful in communicating ideas and making requests.
- Positive behavior support involves making environmental changes to the home or classroom, so that good behavior feels more rewarding.
ABA is a flexible therapy:
- It can be adapted to meet the needs of each unique child
- Teaches practical life skills
- Provided in many different locations – at school, at home, and in the community
- Can involve either one-to-one teaching or group instruction
A core deficit in autism is the inability to communicate either verbally or non-verbally. Children with autism often have difficulties interacting with others. They engage in repetitive activity or behavior because they are unable to convey their intent in any other way. Hence, it is imperative to help a child with autism to learn ways to communicate their needs and ideas effectively.
Speech-language therapy can help children with autism to improve their verbal, non-verbal, and social communication. The goal is to help the child communicate in more practical and useful ways. Some children with autism find it easier to communicate using pictures or technology.
There is a wide range of intervention approaches available.
SCERTS. The SCERTS model is designed to help therapists, families, and educators work cooperatively together to support the child. It focuses on:
- SC – social communication – functional communication and emotional expression
- ER – emotional regulation – regulate emotions and stress
- TS – transactional support – support for caregivers to adapt to the child’s needs
Computer-assisted therapy for reasoning about communicative actions. It teaches not merely via examples but also the rule and reason behind it.
Picture exchange communication system (PECS) is a visual-based treatment that allows your child to ask questions and communicate through special symbols.
Relationship-based, developmental models
Relationship-based models focus on the relationships that help children reach developmental milestones. Examples of these early milestones are interest and engagement in the world, the intentionality of action, and intimacy with a caregiver.
Relationship development intervention is a family-based program for children with autism. This program focuses on the development of dynamic intelligence, which is the ability to think flexibly, cope with change, take different perspectives, and process information simultaneously.
Floortime/DIR approach is a developmental intervention whereby you get down on the floor to play and interact with your child at their developmental level. The goal is to help children expand their cognitive, language, and social abilities. It encourages inclusive back-and-forth play with neurotypical peers. Overall, floortime aims to help the child reach these milestones:
- Self-regulation and interest in the world
- Complex two-way communication
- Intimacy, or engagements in relationships
- Emotional ideas and emotional thinking
The P.L.A.Y Project refers to play and language for autistic youngsters. It is designed to train professionals and parents to implement intensive developmental interventions for young children with autism.
Son-Rise is a home-based therapy that emphasizes on the implementation of color- and sensory-free playroom. Parents are trained to joint their child’s ritualistic behavior without judgment.
Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children (TEACCH), which is also known as “structured teaching,” emphasizes structure by using organized physical environments, visual schedules, visually structured activities, predictably sequenced activities, and formal work/activity systems where each child can practice various tasks. This treatment uses visual cues to help your child learn life skills (e.g., getting dressed). Information is synthesized into small steps so he can discover it more easily. It is based on the unique learning needs of children with autism, including:
- Visual information to supplement verbal communication
- Difficulties with social interaction, attention, and executive function
- Structured support for social communication
Occupation therapy helps your child learn life skills like feeding and self-care, play skills, learning strategies, and relating to others. The skills learned are aimed to help the child live as independently as possible. Common goals include:
- Fine motor skills like coloring, writing and cutting with scissors
- Independent dressing
- Using the bathroom
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that teaches children about the connections between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This may help them to manage anxiety by identifying the thoughts and feelings that trigger negative responses. It can also help them cope better in social situations.
Environmental enrichment refers to the use of therapy to influence how the brain process information provided by its environment (e.g., social interaction).
Music therapy uses musical elements to let the child express their feelings and communicate. It may help in social interactions and communications.
Examples of techniques used in music therapy include:
- Free improvisation
- Structured improvisation
- Performing or recreating the music
- Composing music
Improvisational Music Therapy (IMT) occurs when the child and therapist compose music with the use of various instruments, movement, and song. The specific needs of the autistic child are taken into consideration.
Sensory integration therapy
Children with autism tend to respond abnormally to sensory stimuli. Sensory integration therapy helps to balance out a child’s response to sensory stimulation.
If your child gets upset about things like bright lights, certain sounds, or the feeling of being touched, they may benefit from sensory integration therapy.
Parent-mediated interventions offer practical advice and support to parents of autistic children. Parents can learn techniques of behavior and interaction management to assist their child’s development.
There isn’t a cure for autism spectrum disorder. However, some medicines can help with common symptoms like seizures, depression, insomnia, and hyperactivity.
Children with autism may be prescribed psychoactive drugs or anticonvulsants. Risperidone is the only drug approved by the FDA for treating symptomatic irritability in autistic children.
There are countless fo alternative treatments for autism. However, there’s isn’t conclusive research to back up these alternative methods, and it’s unclear whether they’re useful. Work closely with a doctor to determine whether these alternative treatments are suitable for your child.
Potential alternative treatments include:
- Gluten-free, casein-free diet
- Weighted blankets
- Vitamin C
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Vitamin B-6 and magnesium combined
- CBD oil
Toys for Autistic Kids
Kids with autism are – kids. And they love to play!
Play is an effective method of teaching. Kids with autism learn better when you teach them through play. Playing with toys helps them develop their sensory-motor skills, language skills, social interaction, and problem-solving skills.
Embrace high-interest toys
Children with autism can become very interested in a singular object, like trains or dinosaurs. Sometimes parents try to stop the intensity of their child’s interest, thinking it’s a habit that needs to be broken. But interest is interest, and you should go with it. Think about ways to use that interest to expand play and learning.
Avoid overstimulating toys
Many children with autism become overstimulated by electronic gadgets with a lot of lights, sounds, and moving parts. Playing with these can not only lead to meltdowns, but children often focus exclusively on the toy and don’t pay any attention to other people around them.
Think beyond age-grading
Toy manufacturers age-grade their toys so parents can understand what’s age-appropriate – both from a safety and developmental standpoint. But when it comes to toys for autistic kids, as long as they don’t pose a safety hazard for your child, so what if the toy packaging reads 5+? Only you know what playthings are genuinely appropriate for your child’s developmental age. Some children with autism have intellectual disabilities – and some don’t. Many have at or above intellectual ability. Trust your gut and pick toys that meet your child where they are developmental, keeping safety top of mind.
Choose no-wrong-way-to-play toys
Toys that can be played within a lot of different ways are among the best toys for kids with autism. They’re especially suitable for children who have inconsistencies in their development.
Look for appropriate sensory stimulation
Children with autism typically crave a particular sensory input. Some gravitate toward the tactile (perhaps touching certain textures is calming), while others prefer to stimulate their proprioceptive system, which is joints and muscles (spinning or jumping might regulate their mood). And many have various sensory needs. Look for toys that have lots of sensory elements that your child will enjoy.
Limit available toys
It’s often problematic to have many toys out and available at the same time. Containers with lids, cabinets, or shelving to put toys away will help you teach your child to clean up and to limit distractions.
Learn more about autism
Educate yourself about the intervention options and participate in all treatment decisions. Figure out what triggers your kid’s disruptive behaviors and what elicits a positive response. If you understand the autistic traits that affect your child, you’ll be better equipped at finding the appropriate intervention to help your child.
Provide structure and safety
Be consistent. Children with autism have a challenging time applying what they’ve learned in one setting (such as school or therapist’s office) to others, including the home. For instance, your child may communicate with sign language at school, but never think to do likewise at home. Creating consistency in your child’s environment can reinforce learning. Learn what your child’s therapists are doing and implement their techniques at home. Explore the possibility of having therapy sessions in more than one location to encourage your child to transfer the knowledge from one place to another. Be consistent in your interaction with your child and how you deal with challenging behaviors.
Stick to a schedule. Children with ASD tend to excel when they have a highly-structured routine. Set up a consistent plan for your child, with regular times for therapy, school, meals, and bedtime. Try to minimize disruptions to this routine. If there is unavoidable change, prepare your child in advance. This will help make them adapt better.
Reward good behavior. Positive reinforcement can go a long way, so make an effort to catch your child doing something right. Praise them when they act appropriately, being very specific about what they’re being praised for. Celebrate their achievements by acknowledging and recognizing abilities and strength.
Create a home safety zone. Allocate a private space in your home where your child can relax, be safe, and feel secure. This will involve setting boundaries in ways that your child can understand, such as labels or other visual cues. You should also safe-proof the house if your child is prone to tantrums or other self-injurious behaviors.
Find non-verbal ways to connect
You can communicate with the child non-verbally such as using eye contact, tone of voice, and even the way you touch them. Your child is also communicative even if they never speak.
Look for nonverbal cues. If you are observant, you can pick up the nonverbal cues that children with autism use to communicate. Pay attention to their facial expressions, the kinds of sounds they make, and the gestures they use when they want something.
Figure out the reason behind the tantrum. When children with ASD misbehave, it’s often because they’re misunderstood or ignored. Throwing a tantrum is their mode of communicating their frustration.
Make time for fun. There is more to life than therapy. Figure out how to have fun with your child so that you can have unpressured time together.
Pay attention to your child’s sensory sensitivities. Many children with ASD are either hypersensitive or under-sensitive to light, touch, sound, taste, and smell. Figure out which stimuli trigger your child’s disruptive behaviors and what elicits a positive response.
Create a personalized autism treatment plan
There is no particular treatment that works for every child. Each child on the spectrum is unique, with different needs.
An excellent personalized treatment plan will:
- Build on your child’s interests
- Teach tasks as a series of small steps
- Provide regular reinforcement of behavior
- Offer a predictable schedule
- Actively engage the child’s interest in highly structured activities
- Involve parents
Your child’s treatment should be personalized according to their individual needs. You know your child best, so it’s your responsibility to make sure those needs are being met.
Stay involved in your child’s treatment plan. Help your child get the most out of treatment by working together with the therapist and following through with the therapy at home.
Find help and support
It can require a lot of time and energy to care for a child with autism. You may sometimes feel discouraged, overwhelmed, or stressed.
Reach out to a support network in the community and connect with people who are going through similar experiences.
The Bottom Line
Don’t give up. Seek treatment as soon as you suspect that your child is autistic – don’t wait to see if your child will outgrow the problem or catch up. The earlier children with autism receive help, the higher their chance of leading a normal life. Work with your doctor or therapist to figure out the most effective treatment plan for your child.