Treating autism spectrum disorder
There's no 'cure' for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, a range of specialist educational and behavioural programmes can help children with ASD.
It can be difficult to know which intervention will work best for your child, because each person with ASD is affected differently.
Some types of intervention can involve hours of intensive work, and this isn't always possible for many families because of the practical, emotional and financial commitments necessary.
The National Autistic Society website has information about the many different strategies and approaches available for ASD.
Any intervention should focus on important aspects of your child's development. These are:
- communication skills – such as using pictures to help communicate (as speech and language skills are usually significantly delayed)
- social interaction skills – such as the ability to understand other people's feelings and respond to them
- imaginative play skills – such as encouraging pretend play
- academic skills – the "traditional" skills a child needs to progress with their education, such as reading, writing and maths
The detailed assessment, management and co-ordination of care for children and young people with ASD should involve local specialist community-based multidisciplinary teams (sometimes called "local autism teams") working together. The team may include:
- a paediatrician
- mental heath specialists, such as a psychologist and psychiatrist
- a learning disability specialist
- a speech and language therapist
- an occupational therapist
- education and social care services
Local autism teams should ensure that every child or young person diagnosed with ASD has a case manager or key worker to manage and co-ordinate their treatment, care and support, as well as their transition into adult care.
The Research Autism website provides details of the many different types of autism interventions, treatments and therapies.
Parent education and training
The parents of a child with ASD play a crucial role in supporting their child and improving their skills.
If your child has ASD, it's a good idea to find out as much as you can about the condition. The National Autistic Society website provides useful information and advice for parents, relatives and carers.
The Research Autism website is also a good source of information and has a section about the different issues that living with autism presents, including the impact of autism on the family.
Communication advice for parents
Communication is particularly challenging for children with ASD. Helping your child to communicate can reduce anxiety and improve behaviour.
The following tips may be useful when communicating and interacting with your child:
- use your child's name, so they know you're addressing them
- keep background noise to a minimum
- keep language simple
- speak slowly and clearly, with pauses between words
- accompany what you say with simple gestures
- allow extra time for your child to process what you've said
Parent support programmes
In-depth advice and support programmes are available for parents of children recently diagnosed with ASD.
For example, the EarlyBird programme provided by The National Autistic Society is a free three-month course for parents whose child has been diagnosed with ASD, but hasn't started school yet.
The programme aims to inform and support parents, and offers practical advice about looking after their child and helping them improve their skills.
EarlyBird Plus is for parents of children who have received a later diagnosis of ASD and are four to eight years of age. The programme aims to address the child's needs at both home and school by training parents and carers, together with a professional who regularly works with their child.
EarlyBird and EarlyBird Plus programmes are run by licensed teams and are available in most parts of the UK. To find out if there's a team in your area, call 01226 779218 or email email@example.com.
If your child's behaviour is causing problems, they'll be assessed for possible triggers, such as a physical health condition, mental health problem, or environmental factors.
In cases where a child with ASD also has a mental health problem, such as anxiety, a psychological treatment may be offered.
Psychological treatments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), involve talking to a trained therapist about thoughts and feelings, and discussing how these affect behaviour and wellbeing.
You can read more about CBT and autism on the Research Autism website.
In some cases, medication may be prescribed to treat some of the symptoms or conditions associated with ASD. For example:
These medications can have significant side effects and are usually only prescribed by a doctor who specialises in the condition being treated. If medication is offered, your child will have regular check-ups to assess whether it's working.
Treatments not recommended
A number of alternative treatments have been suggested for ASD. However, these should be avoided, because there's little or no evidence that they're effective and some may even be potentially dangerous.
Treatments that aren't recommended for ASD include:
- special diets – such as gluten-free or casein-free diets
- neurofeedback – where brain activity is monitored (usually by placing electrodes on the head) and the person being treated can see their brain activity on a screen and is taught how to change it
- auditory integration training – a therapy that involves listening to music that varies in tone, pitch and volume
- chelation therapy – which uses medication or other agents to remove metal (in particular, mercury) from the body
- hyperbaric oxygen therapy – treatment with oxygen in a pressurised chamber
- facilitated communication – where a therapist or another person supports and guides a person's hand or arm while using a device such as a computer keyboard or mouse
Some of the interventions for ASD take a lot of time and labour, and can cost a significant amount of money if not available on the NHS.
Many local education authorities (LEAs) provide partial or sometimes total funding towards specialist education and training, but this varies widely between LEAs.
Read more about Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND).
If you would like more information and advice about what funding is available and how to request it, The National Autistic Society runs a special service called the Education Rights Service.
Page last reviewed: 06/01/2016
Next review due: 06/01/2018