Treatments for Autism
Treatment list for Autism: The list of treatments mentioned in various sources for Autism includes the following list. Always seek professional medical advice about any treatment or change in treatment plans.
- Behavioral therapies
- Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)
- Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
- Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBS)
- Parent training
- Medications - usually only for specific behavior such as self-injury or aggression.
Treatments of Autism discussion: There is no cure for autism at present. Therapies, or interventions, are designed to remedy specific symptoms in each individual. The best-studied therapies include educational/behavioral and medical interventions. Although these interventions do not cure autism, they often bring about substantial improvement.
Educational/behavioral interventions: These strategies emphasize highly structured and often intensive skill-oriented training that is tailored to the individual child. Therapists work with children to help them develop social and language skills. Because children learn most effectively and rapidly when very young, this type of therapy should begin as early as possible. Recent evidence suggests that early intervention has a good chance of favorably influencing brain development.
Medication: Doctors may prescribe a variety of drugs to reduce self-injurious behavior or other troublesome symptoms of autism, as well as associated conditions such as epilepsy and attention disorders. Most of these drugs affect levels of serotonin or other signaling chemicals in the brain.
Many other interventions are available, but few, if any, scientific studies support their use. These therapies remain controversial and may or may not reduce a specific person's symptoms. Parents should use caution before subscribing to any particular treatment. Counseling for the families of people with autism also may assist them in coping with the disorder. 1
There is currently no cure for autism, but appropriate treatment may foster relatively normal development and reduce undesirable behaviors. Educational/behavioral therapies and drug interventions are designed to remedy specific symptoms. Educational/behavioral therapies emphasize highly structured and often intensive skill-oriented training. Doctors also may prescribe a variety of drugs to reduce symptoms of autism Other interventions are available, but few, if any, scientific studies support their use. 2
A number of treatment approaches have evolved in the decades since autism was first identified. Some therapeutic programs focus on developing skills and replacing dysfunctional behaviors with more appropriate ones. Others focus on creating a stimulating learning environment tailored to the unique needs of children with autism.
Researchers have begun to identify factors that make certain treatment programs more effective in reducing- or reversing-the limitations imposed by autism. Treatment programs that build on the child's interests, offer a predictable schedule, teach tasks as a series of simple steps, actively engage the child's attention in highly structured activities, and provide regular reinforcement of behavior, seem to produce the greatest gains.
Parent involvement has also emerged as a major factor in treatment success. Parents work with teachers and therapists to identify the behaviors to be changed and the skills to be taught. Recognizing that parents are the child's earliest teachers, more programs are beginning to train parents to continue the therapy at home. Research is beginning to suggest that mothers and fathers who are trained to work with their child can be as effective as professional teachers and therapists. 3
Professionals have found that many children with autism learn best in an environment that builds on their skills and interests while accommodating their special needs. Programs employing a developmental approach provide consistency and structure along with appropriate levels of stimulation. For example, a predictable schedule of activities each day helps children with autism plan and organize their experiences. Using a certain area of the classroom for each activity helps students know what they are expected to do. For those with sensory problems, activities that sensitize or desensitize the child to certain kinds of stimulation may be especially helpful.
In one developmental preschool classroom, a typical session starts with a physical activity to help develop balance, coordination, and body awareness. Children string beads, piece puzzles together, paint and participate in other structured activities. At snack time, the teacher encourages social interaction and models how to use language to ask for more juice. Later, the teacher stimulates creative play by prompting the children to pretend being a train. As in any classroom, the children learn by doing.
Although higher-functioning children may be able to handle academic work, they too need help to organize the task and avoid distractions. A student with autism might be assigned the same addition problems as her classmates. But instead of assigning several pages in the textbook, the teacher might give her one page at a time or make a list of specific tasks to be checked off as each is done. 3
When people are rewarded for a certain behavior, they are more likely to repeat or continue that behavior. Behaviorist training approaches are based on this principle. When children with autism are rewarded each time they attempt or perform a new skill, they are likely to perform it more often. With enough practice, they eventually acquire the skill. For example, a child who is rewarded whenever she looks at the therapist may gradually learn to make eye contact on her own.
Dr. O. Ivar Lovaas pioneered the use of behaviorist methods for children with autism more than 25 years ago. His methods involve time-intensive, highly structured, repetitive sequences in which a child is given a command and rewarded each time he responds correctly. For example, in teaching a young boy to sit still, a therapist might place him in front of chair and tell him to sit. If the child doesn't respond, the therapist nudges him into the chair. Once seated, the child is immediately rewarded in some way. A reward might be a bit of chocolate, a sip of juice, a hug, or applause-whatever the child enjoys. The process is repeated many times over a period of up to two hours. Eventually, the child begins to respond without being nudged and sits for longer periods of time. Learning to sit still and follow directions then provides a foundation for learning more complex behaviors. Using this approach for up to 40 hours a week, some children may be brought to the point of near-normal behavior. Others are much less responsive to the treatment.
However, some researchers and therapists believe that less intensive treatments, particularly those begun early in a child's life, may be more efficient and just as effective. So, over the years, researchers sponsored by NIMH and other agencies have continued to study and modify the behaviorist approach. Today, some of these behaviorist treatment programs are more individualized and built around the child's own interests and capabilities. Many programs also involve parents or other non-autistic children in teaching the child. Instruction is no longer limited to a controlled environment, but takes place in natural, everyday settings. Thus, a trip to the supermarket may be an opportunity to practice using words for size and shape. Although rewarding desired behavior is still a key element, the rewards are varied and appropriate to the situation. A child who makes eye contact may be rewarded with a smile, rather than candy. NIMH is funding several types of behaviorist treatment approaches to help determine the best time for treatment to start, the optimum treatment intensity and duration, and the most effective methods to reach both high- and low-functioning children. 3
In trying to do everything possible to help their children, many parents are quick to try new treatments. Some treatments are developed by reputable therapists or by parents of a child with autism, yet when tested scientifically, cannot be proven to help. Before spending time and money and possibly slowing their child's progress, the family should talk with experts and evaluate the findings of objective reviewers. Following are some of the approaches that have not been shown to be effective in treating the majority of children with autism:
- Facilitated Communication, which assumes that by supporting a
nonverbal child's arms and fingers so that he can type on a keyboard,
the child will be able to type out his inner thoughts. Several
scientific studies have shown that the typed messages actually reflect
the thoughts of the person providing the support.
- Holding Therapy, in which the parent hugs the child for long
periods of time, even if the child resists. Those who use this technique
contend that it forges a bond between the parent and child. Some claim
that it helps stimulate parts of the brain as the child senses the
boundaries of her own body. There is no scientific evidence, however, to
support these claims.
- Auditory Integration Training, in which the child listens to
a variety of sounds with the goal of improving language comprehension.
Advocates of this method suggest that it helps people with autism
receive more balanced sensory input from their environment. When tested
using scientific procedures, the method was shown to be no more
effective than listening to music.
- Dolman/Delcato Method, in which people are made to crawl and move as they did at each stage of early development, in an attempt to learn missing skills. Again, no scientific studies support the effectiveness of the method.
It is critical that parents obtain reliable, objective information before enrolling their child in any treatment program. Programs that are not based on sound principles and tested through solid research can do more harm than good. They may frustrate the child and cause the family to lose money, time, and hope. 3
Parents are often disappointed to learn that there is no single best treatment for all children with autism; possibly not even for a specific child.
Even after a child has been thoroughly tested and formally diagnosed, there is no clear "right" course of action. The diagnostic team may suggest treatment methods and service providers, but ultimately it is up to the parents to consider their child's unique needs, research the various options, and decide.
Above all, parents should consider their own sense of what will work for their child. Keeping in mind that autism takes many forms, parents need to consider whether a specific program has helped children like their own. 3
No medication can correct the brain structures or impaired nerve connections that seem to underlie autism. Scientists have found, however, that drugs developed to treat other disorders with similar symptoms are sometimes effective in treating the symptoms and behaviors that make it hard for people with autism to function at home, school, or work. It is important to note that none of the medications described in this section has been approved for autism by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA is the Federal agency that authorizes the use of drugs for specific disorders.
Medications used to treat anxiety and depression are being explored as a way to relieve certain symptoms of autism. These drugs include fluoxetine (Prozac™), fluvoxamine (Luvox™), sertraline (Zoloft™), and clomipramine (Anafranil™). Some scientists believe that autism and these disorders may share a problem in the functioning of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which these medications apparently help.
One study found that about 60 percent of patients with autism who used fluoxetine became less distraught and aggressive. They became calmer and better able to handle changes in their routine or environment. However, fenfluramine, another medication that affects serotonin levels, has not proven to be helpful.
People with an anxiety disorder called obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), like people with autism, are plagued by repetitive actions they can't control. Based on the premise that the two disorders may be related, one NIMH research study found that clomipramine, a medication used to treat OCD, does appear to be effective in reducing obsessive, repetitive behavior in some people with autism. Children with autism who were given the medication also seemed less withdrawn, angry, and anxious. But more research needs to be done to see if the findings of this study can be repeated.
Some children with autism experience hyperactivity, the frenzied activity that is seen in people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Since stimulant drugs like Ritalin™ are helpful in treating many people with ADHD, doctors have tried them to reduce the hyperactivity sometimes seen in autism. The drugs seem to be most effective when given to higher-functioning children with autism who do not have seizures or other neurological problems.
Because many children with autism have sensory disturbances and often seem impervious to pain, scientists are also looking for medications that increase or decrease the transmission of physical sensations. Endorphins are natural painkillers produced by the body. But in certain people with autism, the endorphins seem to go too far in suppressing feeling. Scientists are exploring substances that block the effects of endorphins, to see if they can bring the sense of touch to a more normal range. Such drugs may be helpful to children who experience too little sensation. And once they can sense pain, such children could be less likely to bite themselves, bang their heads, or hurt themselves in other ways.
Chlorpromazine, theoridazine, and haloperidol have also been used. Although these powerful drugs are typically used to treat adults with severe psychiatric disorders, they are sometimes given to people with autism to temporarily reduce agitation, aggression, and repetitive behaviors. However, since major tranquilizers are powerful medications that can produce serious and sometimes permanent side effects, they should be prescribed and used with extreme caution.
Vitamin B6, taken with magnesium, is also being explored as a way to stimulate brain activity. Because vitamin B6 plays an important role in creating enzymes needed by the brain, some experts predict that large doses might foster greater brain activity in people with autism. However, clinical studies of the vitamin have been inconclusive and further study is needed.
Like drugs, vitamins change the balance of chemicals in the body and may cause unwanted side effects. For this reason, large doses of vitamins should only be given under the supervision of a doctor. This is true of all vitamins and medications.3
The behavioral and cognitive functioning of individuals with autism can improve with the help of psychosocial and pharmacological interventions. Among psychosocial treatments, intensive, sustained special education programs and behavior therapy early in life can increase the ability of children with autism to acquire language and the ability to learn. NIMH-funded research teams are evaluating the effectiveness of parent-training interventions that are tailored to the particular characteristics of the child and family.
In adults with autism, some studies have found beneficial effects of
the antidepressant medications clomipramine and fluoxetine.
There is also evidence that the antipsychotic medication haloperidol can
be helpful; however, the risk of serious side effects is significant in
1. excerpt from Autism Fact Sheet: NINDS
2. excerpt from NINDS Autism Information Page: NINDS
3. excerpt from Autism: NIMH
4. excerpt from Unraveling Autism: NIMH
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