Treating autism spectrum disorder
There is currently no 'cure' for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, a range of specialist education and behavioural programmes (often referred to as interventions) can be effective in improving the skills of children with ASD.
There are many different types of intervention for ASD and it can be hard to judge which one will work best for your child as each person with ASD is affected differently.
Some types of intervention can involve hours of intensive work, and this is not always possible for many families because of the practical, emotional and financial commitments necessary.
The National Autism Society website has information on the many different approaches, therapies and interventions 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 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 working together, such as a paediatrician, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a speech and language therapist and an occupational therapist.
Some of the main treatments used for ASD are explained below.
Your child may be offered a type of programme called a 'social-communication intervention'. This aims to help them communicate and interact with people and make social situations easier.
Depending on your child's age, these programmes 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, as well as rewarding and reinforcing positive behaviour while discouraging inappropriate behaviour.
ABA sessions are normally 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.
There are concerns from some health professionals about the intensity of certain ABA-based programmes and some professionals feel it is not always clear how useful the skills gained are outside of some highly structured programmes. However, there is good evidence to suggest early intervention programmes that integrate with education can be beneficial.
Read more about ABA and early intensive behavioural intervention (EIBI) on the Research Autism website.
TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children) is a type of educational intervention that places great emphasis on structured learning by using visual prompts. This is because research has found that children with ASD often respond better to information that is 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 them improve their skills.
If your child is diagnosed with ASD, it can be useful to find out as much as you can about life with 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 a particular challenge for children with ASD. Helping your child communicate can lead to reduced anxiety and improved behaviour.
You may find the following tips useful when communicating and interacting with your child:
- use your child’s name so they know you are 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 have said
Parent support programmes
For more in-depth advice, there are some programmes specifically designed to help parents of children recently diagnosed with ASD, such as the EarlyBird programme provided by the National Autism Society.
This is a free three-month course for families with a child who has been diagnosed with ASD but has not yet started school.
The programme aims to support and inform parents, as well as offering practical advice about looking after a child with ASD and helping to improve their skills.
EarlyBird is offered in most areas of the UK by licensed teams. To find out if there is a team in your area you can call 01226 779218, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or check for EarlyBird licensed teams on the National Autistic Society website.
Improving communication skills
As well as the social-communication interventions mentioned above, a number of other treatments may be offered to specifically help overcome communication difficulties your child may have. Some of the main treatments used are described below.
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 helpful in allowing them to communicate more effectively, which is why an approach called the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is sometimes carried out 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 that involves using signs and symbols in support of spoken language to help people with ASD communicate with others.
The signs used in Makaton are based on British Sign Language and each sign has a corresponding symbol. These symbols are simple drawings that can often be used independently of the signs. These signs or symbols can be used with speech to help provide extra clues as to what someone is saying.
Over time, as their speech and language skills develop, many people with ASD will stop using the signs or symbols naturally at their own pace and start to rely more on their speech to communicate.
Makaton can be helpful in improving basic communication in some people with ASD, as well as helping to improve social interaction and the ability to build relationships.
If your child has ASD and a mental health problem (such as anxiety), or if their behaviour is causing problems, a psychological treatment may be offered.
Psychological treatments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), involve meeting with a therapist to talk about feelings and thoughts and how these affect behaviour and wellbeing.
If a treatment like CBT is offered, the professionals involved in the treatment should also be aware of any changes that need to be made to the treatment because of the ASD. This might include more written or visual information (for example, worksheets and images), and using plain English.
Read more about CBT on the Research Autism website.
No medication is available to treat the core symptoms of ASD, but medication may be able 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 is helping.
Treatments not recommended
A number of alternative treatments have been suggested as potential treatments for ASD.
However, these should be avoided because there is little or no evidence that any of these approaches are effective, and some may even be potentially dangerous.
Some of the treatments not 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 other 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 advice on what funding is available and how to request it, the National Autism Society runs a special service called the Education Rights Service.
Page last reviewed: 18/12/2013
Next review due: 18/12/2015