What are the Tested Treatments of Autism?

What are the Tested Treatments of Autism?

 By Sarah Johnson.

Types of treatments for Autism

Autism is very unique and varies differently from child-to-child on effects, so the same can be expected from treatments. Since no child with autism is ever the same, the options for treatment are almost always customized to the child and what needs are prevalent. 

A child’s treatment plan can include behavioral interventions, therapies, medicines, or a mixture of them all. It is very common that a child with autism also faces many other health conditions such as issues with digestion, sleep, motor skills, social skills, communication, and more. Getting the correct diagnosis will reflect how effective the treatment can be.

Once the child has a diagnosis that gives the areas needed for treatment, treatment options can be discussed. Below is a running list of some options of treatment and methods available to children with autism.

The most common types of therapies used in treating children with ASD include Applied Behavior Analysis, Behavioral Intervention/Systematic Desensitization Therapy, DIRgital Therapies, Functional Family Training, Interpersonal & Social Rhythm Therapy, Music Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Play Therapy, Sensory Integration, and Response Prevention.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Applied behavior analysis, also called behavioral engineering, is a scientific technique that applies approaches based upon the principles of the respondent and operant conditioning to change the behavior of social significance. ABA was developed by Dr. B F Skinner at Harvard University during the 1940s and 1950s. The goal of this type of therapy is to teach specific behaviors through shaping and reinforcement. This method involves teaching new ways of responding to stimuli and rewarding desired responses.

Verbal Behavior- teaches communication and language. It is based on the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Verbal Behavior focuses on verbal cues, verbal instructions, and verbal feedback.

Response Prevention- prevents unwanted behaviors. For example, it is important to prevent a child from hitting others when they do not want to hit someone.

Directional Inhibition- helps control impulses. An example would be preventing a child from biting his nails.

Functional Family Training- teaches parents how to implement strategies to help their child learn appropriate behaviors until they achieve behavioral improvement.

Pivotal Response Training (PRT) 

Pivotal response training is a behavior modification technique that works with children to teach them new behaviors. This type of therapy is based on the idea that children learn best when they are engaged in something meaningful. This form of therapy was developed by Dr. Stanley Greenspan. It also involves play initiated by the child, based on the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).

Early Start Denver Model (ESDM)

The Early Start Denver Model, behavioral therapy for children with autism between the ages of 12-48 months. Based on the methods of applied behavior analysis, parents and therapists use play to build positive and fun relationships. They work together to help develop language and problem-solving abilities while building self-help skills.

Behavioral intervention/ Systematic desensitization therapy 

Also known as systematic desensitization, this form of therapy uses exposure techniques to reduce anxiety and fearfulness. Children learn about their fears and gradually expose themselves to situations they have been avoiding until they feel comfortable enough to face those things without being afraid. It focuses on helping individuals learn to cope better with their environment. 

Systematic desensitization involves gradually exposing a person to stimuli that cause anxiety until he or she becomes less fearful of those stimuli. This technique is often used to treat phobias, panic attacks, and OCD.

Cognitive Behavioral Intervention (CBI)- A process that teaches the learner to examine the intensity of their own behaviors and thoughts, then use strategies to adjust the behaviors or thoughts. 

DIRgital Therapies

Digital technology provides an opportunity Digital technology offers a wide range of tools that are useful in helping people communicate better. These tools may include voice recognition software, speech synthesis programs, text messaging services, video conferencing applications, webcams, etc. Many individuals who suffer from various forms of disabilities find these digital technologies helpful because it allows them to interact with others using different means than what they were accustomed to before.
DIRgital Therapies use technology to help children with autism. For example, using iPads to teach children with autism to recognize letters.

Occupational Therapy (OT)

These programs help focus on play skills, learning strategies, and self-care. OT strategies can also help to manage sensory issues. OT helps the child to become more independent and to increase his or her ability to function in daily life, by teaching them daily living skills.

Functional family training 

Functional family training helps families cope with daily challenges such as managing emotions, communicating effectively, dealing with stressors, adapting routines, planning ahead, and making decisions. It is a parent-based program designed to improve communication and other important skills in young children with autism. It focuses on teaching parents how to implement activities and routines into everyday life. It teaches parents how to become more effective caregivers so they can provide appropriate care for their children. 

Interpersonal and social rhythm therapy 

IPSRT focuses on developing communication skills, improving social interactions, increasing attention span, reducing hyperactivity, and decreasing impulsivity.

Music Therapy

Music therapy is a discipline concerned with the therapeutic application of music to promote health and well-being. Music therapy can be defined as "the clinical use of music to facilitate human growth and development." Music therapy is not only beneficial to autistic children but also to all age groups including adults. The purpose of music therapy is to enhance the individual's sense of well-being by creating a positive mood state through listening to music.

Speech & Language Pathology

Speech and language pathologists work with clients to develop their verbal and nonverbal communication skills. They assess clients' abilities and needs, design and implement intervention plans, evaluate progress, and make recommendations regarding further education and/or therapy.

Speech Therapy helps in all ways the child might be struggling within their speech development, which typically can vastly vary with children who have autism.

Relationship Development Intervention (RDI)

Parents are mostly trained as the primary therapist, where they will learn behavioral treatments addressing the main symptoms of autism. It focuses on building emotional and social skills, usually specific to the child.
Relationship Development Intervention is a form of Applied Behavior Analysis . RDI aims at promoting the development of relationships between the child and significant adults. This includes both the child’s primary caregiver and teachers. RDI is based upon principles of ABA, but incorporates elements of attachment theory, developmental psychology, and cognitive behavioral methods.


Autism Program that creates community-based services, training programs, and research for individuals of all ages and skill levels with an autism spectrum disorder.

Social Skills Training

Social Skills Training is a behavior modification approach used to teach socially acceptable behaviors to students with severe emotional disturbances. Social skills training has been shown to be successful in treating many types of disorders, including autism spectrum disorder. Social Skills Training teaches social skills like eye contact, greeting people, making friends, etc.

Social skills grouping involves working with small groups of students to teach them specific social skills. This method has been found to be very effective in teaching students with autism.

Sensory Integration

Sensory integration is a term used to describe the process of processing information from one’s senses. Sensory integration is an essential part of normal brain function and plays a role in motor control, perception, memory, and cognition. Individuals with ASD experience difficulties with this process due to problems with sensory input, processing, and output. These individuals may have difficulty distinguishing between different sensations, such as touch, sound, smell, taste, sight, hearing, balance, and proprioception.

Other interventions:

  • Lovaas Method - Lovaas method is one of the most widely used early intensive behavioral interventions for children with autism spectrum disorders. It has been shown to be highly effective in treating children with autism. In addition to providing intensive behavioral treatment, Lovaas method incorporates educational instruction, which emphasizes the development of functional academic skills.
  • Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)- System designed with behavior analysis to promote independent communication.
  • Differential Reinforcement- the process of reinforcing different responses and not reinforcing other responses (exhausting those responses). For example reducing irritability in children with autistic behaviors.
  • Prompting (PP)- any help given to the learner that assists them in the success of a targeted skill. 
  • Structured Play Groups- smalls groups activities assisted by an adult, to define a specific area, activity, theme, and role.
  • Psychiatric Evaluation - This is done if there is concern about whether the child has an underlying psychiatric disorder that may be causing their symptoms.

  • Dietary treatments- there are several dietary therapies that have been proven to be helpful in improving symptoms associated with autism. The most common ones include gluten free diets, casein free diets, and dairy free diets.
  • Medications- help treat symptoms of autism. There are two main categories: medications that affect brain function and medications that target specific problems associated with autism. Some medications can improve behavior problems associated with autism spectrum disorders. These include stimulants such as Ritalin and Adder.

There are many unique treatments that can help with specifics a child who has autism might need addressing. It’s important to keep doing research until you find a treatment that works best for you and your child. There is no magic bullet for dealing with ASD, however it does seem that some parents do get better results than others. To learn more about treatment and intervention services for children with autism visit the CDC website.

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