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How is Autism Treated?

How is autism treatedAccording to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), affects 1 in 59 children, a number that has dramatically increased since a previously reported 1 in 68 children. Currently, no cure or medication can treat ASD or its core symptoms. Today’s treatments and medications that are used for ASD instead focus on enabling those living with autism to have a higher level of function.  

Screening and Symptoms of Autism

There is no blood test or definitive diagnostic test to determine if a child has ASD. If a doctor or parent suspects that a child has ASD, there is a combination of developmental screening(s) and a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation that a doctor can perform.

To be diagnosed on the autism spectrum, a child or patient must display three key characteristics: abnormal, repetitive behaviors, delayed language development, and difficulty socializing. Some common manifestations of these characteristics include the inability to make eye contact, the inability to play with other children, hand-flapping, toe-walking, rocking and/or spinning. It is important to remember that some of these behaviors can be normal for children at different times in their development. A diagnosis of ASD cannot be made until all three non-normative pieces of development, language, and behavior have been noted and assessed by a licensed care provider.

After a diagnosis of ASD is made, one is often also assigned a level of severity. As the diagnosis name implies, there is a large spectrum of symptoms and manifestations which an ASD patient can exhibit. The level of severity has significant effects on the assistance and therapies that a child needs, especially as they relate to necessary physical development and functional capabilities needed to perform and participate adequately in school.

Treatments

No single treatment plan works for every person living with autism. Because there are such varying degrees of symptoms that affect those with ASD, there are also varying treatment options. The age of the patient also has significant effects on treatment modalities; autism affects people at all stages of life and therapies need to address their different needs and social demands. Typically, autism is treated in a few common ways: therapy, dietary changes, and medications.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there are 12 different therapies to treat ASD. They include:

  • Behavioral management therapy
  • Cognitive behavior therapy
  • Early intervention
  • Education and school-based therapies
  • Joint attention therapy
  • Medication treatment
  • Nutritional therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Parent-mediated therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Social skills training
  • Speech-language therapy

 

A typical treatment plan consists of at least 25 hours of therapeutic activities each week. The treatment activities utilized are going to depend on many factors, including exacerbating symptoms, patient age, and long-term goals. This sounds like a lot of weekly hours (and it is), but autism therapy at home is part of these ‘typical’ 25 hours. All of the therapy work will not occur at clinics or care facilities.

When in a clinic or a care facility, activities are guided by highly trained therapists or teachers. At home, therapies are often guided by a parent, family member, or caregiver. Each type of therapy or practice will have well-defined learning objectives, agreed upon by the whole care team, that focus on the areas in which the patient is most affected by their ASD diagnosis (social skills, imitation, daily living, motor skills, communication, etc.).

In addition to the therapeutic treatments for autism, dietary changes, such as eating a gluten-free or casein-free diet, have also proven effective for some people. It is not uncommon for significant diet concerns to already be present, as many with ASD have food aversions and sensitivities. If a care provider is interested in pursuing dietary alterations or holistic medicine suggestions to treat ASD, the Association for Science in Autism Treatment (ASAT) strongly suggests using common sense and doing your own research before believing what is published in mainstream and social media. Autism Speaks also recommends consulting with the child’s care provider before making any significant diet changes, as inadequate nutrition is already more common among children with ASD than those unaffected by the disorder.

Medications are also used for people with ASD. They are not curative; however, they can help manage some of the behaviors that are associated with the disease. Antidepressants are commonly prescribed for depression and anxiety symptoms, antipsychotic drugs may be used for significant behavioral problems, non-stimulants may be prescribed for ASD patients who also have hyperactive tendencies, and anticonvulsants may be used for the ASD patient who also has frequent seizures.

Development

Early intervention is an extremely important factor in the treatment and care of a child with autism. Ideally, a child is diagnosed before the age of 3; early intervention therapists and care providers can then help them learn the many important skills that aid in their development. It was not long ago that children and adults with autism were placed in institutions. Luckily, we have come a long way from those days, now understanding that many patients with ASD can be helped and cared for by the people who love them.

Research

Many people remain undiagnosed with ASD. The focus of research today is not only to determine both the cause and cure for autism, but to also help gain insight into and clarify the diagnostic process for ASD. Currently, the CDC uses a tracking system and conducts National Health Interview Surveys that provide data on the health of ASD children in the United States. Recent results from the system and the surveys indicate that at least 12 out of every 177 children with ASD are not being accounted for, so work also continues to better this process.

Related Resources

There is no cure for autism spectrum disorder, but with the right therapeutic care and medication to manage symptoms, a more functional lifestyle is possible. There have been cases where children and adults have moved off the spectrum with the right combination of treatments.

ABA Programs Guide Staff

Updated April 2020

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