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 the ability to start conversations
- social interaction skills – such as the ability to understand other people's feelings and respond to them
- cognitive (thinking) skills – such as encouraging imaginative play
- academic skills – the "traditional" skills a child needs to progress with their education, such as reading, writing and maths
Treatment for ASD often involves a team of different specialists, known as a multidisciplinary team, working together. This may include a paediatrician, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a speech and language therapist, and an occupational therapist.
After a detailed assessment has been completed and a diagnosis has been made, a personalised plan will be drawn up. The person with ASD will be offered a named keyworker who will co-ordinate the care and support detailed in their personalised plan.
Some of the main treatments used for ASD are explained below.
Your child may be offered a programme called a social-communication intervention. This aims to help them communicate and interact with people, making social situations easier.
Depending on your child's age, this programme may take place at school, or with a parent, carer or teacher.
Applied behaviour analysis (ABA)
Applied behaviour analysis (ABA) involves breaking down skills, such as communication and cognitive skills, into small tasks and teaching those tasks in a highly structured way. It also rewards and reinforces positive behaviour while discouraging inappropriate behaviour.
ABA sessions are usually carried out at home, although some programmes can be integrated into schools or nurseries.
An ABA programme usually begins with simple tasks that become more complex over time, which can help your child's development by gradually improving their skills.
The Research Autism website has more information about applied behaviour analysis and autism.
Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children (TEACCH) is a type of educational intervention that emphasises structured learning by using visual prompts.
Research has found children with ASD often respond better to information that's presented visually.
TEACCH is often delivered at special day centres, but you can also have training so you can continue the intervention activities at home.
Read more about TEACCH on the Research Autism website.
Parent education and training
The parents of a child with ASD play a crucial role in supporting their child and helping improve their skills.
If your child is diagnosed with ASD, it can be useful to find out as much as you can about the condition. The National Autistic Society has an excellent range of resources and advice about living with autism on its website.
Communication advice for parents
Communication is particularly challenging for children with ASD. Helping your child communicate can lead to reduced anxiety and improved 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
For more in-depth advice, programmes specifically designed to help parents of children recently diagnosed with ASD are available.
For example, the EarlyBird programme provided by The National Autistic Society is a free three-month course for families with a child who's been diagnosed with ASD but hasn't started school yet.
The aim of the programme is to support and inform parents, as well as offer practical advice about looking after a child with ASD and helping to improve their skills.
EarlyBird Plus is for parents of children aged four to eight who've been diagnosed with ASD. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more about practical support for carers.
Improving communication skills
As well as the social-communication interventions mentioned above, a number of other treatments may be offered to specifically help overcome the communication difficulties your child may have.
Some of the main treatments used are described below. It may also help to read our advice on caring and communication difficulties.
Speech and language therapy
Speech and language therapy (SLT) is a type of skills training designed to improve your child's language skills. This can improve their ability to interact with others socially.
The therapist uses a number of techniques, such as visual aids, stories and toys, to improve communication skills. Watch a video about speech and language therapy for more information.
Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)
Some children with ASD find picture symbols help them communicate more effectively, which is why an approach called the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is sometimes used by trained specialists to help children with the condition.
PECS teaches children to communicate with adults by giving them cards with pictures on them. Over time, the child is taught progressively more difficult skills, such as using pictures to make whole sentences. This approach aims to eventually help children learn to initiate communication with others without prompting.
Read more about PECS on the Research Autism website.
Makaton is a communication programme where signs and symbols are used to help people with ASD communicate with others.
The signs used in Makaton are based on British Sign Language (BSL), and each sign has a corresponding symbol. These symbols are simple drawings that can often be used independently of the signs. The signs or symbols can be used with speech to help provide extra clues about what someone is saying.
Over time, as their speech and language skills develop, many people with ASD will gradually stop using the signs or symbols and start to rely more on their speech to communicate.
Makaton can be helpful for improving basic communication in some people with ASD, as well as helping improve social interaction and the ability to build relationships.
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 therapist about thoughts and feelings, and discussing how these affect behaviour and wellbeing.
If a treatment like CBT is offered, the therapist should be aware of any changes or adaptations that need to be made to the therapy because of the ASD. This might include using more written or visual information – for example, worksheets and images – and using plain English.
Read more about CBT and autism on the Research Autism website.
In some cases, medication may be prescribed to treat some of the related symptoms or conditions, such as:
However, these medications can have significant side effects and are usually only prescribed by a doctor specialising in the condition being treated. If medication is offered, your child will usually have a check-up after a few weeks to see if it's helping.
Treatments not recommended
A number of alternative treatments have been suggested as potential treatments for ASD.
However, these should be avoided as there's little or no evidence that any of these approaches are effective, and some may even be potentially dangerous.
Some of the 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 with electrodes placed 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.
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: 16/09/2015
Next review due: 16/09/2017