By Elizabeth M. Felder, MD
Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral changes. About 1 in 59 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The most beneficial and widely used treatments available for autism spectrum disorder are behavioral therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy. These therapies address the core deficits, which are characteristic for patients “on the spectrum.” Educational interventions and accommodations are also essential for helping children succeed in the classroom.
Unfortunately, there are still very few effective medications available to treat autism, and none are available to treat the primary deficits in social communication or the sensory processing deficits. Many of the medications prescribed for these patients are used “off label.” They are mainly used for aggression and agitation, OCD symptoms, hyperactivity, sleep and other associated problems. For most individuals with autism, it takes all of these therapies combined to effectively manage the disorder.
Behavioral interventions include ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis), SCERTS (Social Communication, Emotional Regulation and Transactional Support), Early Start Denver Model and Floortime (DIR). Therapies are tailored to each child’s challenges and abilities. Goals of therapy include improvements in the areas of communication and language, social skills, self-care, play skills and learning and academic skills.
ABA is currently considered standard of care but the other methods are gaining traction as research shows benefits.
Components of successful programs include early initiation and individualized goals that are monitored regularly. Starting early and having regular sessions greatly ensures improvement in behavior and social skills. Intense implementation (more than 25 hours per week) is often recommended for best results.
Speech therapy is also very important to improve receptive, expressive and social communication. Therapists can also train patients in the use of augmentative and alternative communication methods. Contrary to current myths, using alternative communication methods can actually improve verbal communication as well as boost overall language and communication.
Alternative methods include sign language, PECS (picture exchange communication system), speech generating devices and communication apps designed for tablets and smart phones. Most children with autism require two to three one-hour sessions per week to see significant and lasting benefits.
Occupational therapy helps with self-care skills, handwriting and other fine motor skills, and sensory integration. Individuals with autism often have sensory processing difficulties, which are defined as problems with the ability of the central nervous system to organize and process input from different sensory channels and develop an appropriate response. Some of the resulting symptoms are poor attention, speech problems, withdrawal, anxiety, sensitivity, clumsiness, twirling, pacing, rocking, poor planning or behavior problems. Sensory processing disorder is often treated with a sensory diet, or a personalized activity schedule that provides therapeutic sensory input.
While research continues to explore causes and treatments for autism, we do have proven therapies available that can make significant impacts in the prognosis of the disorder. Helping a child with autism to communicate, process his or her environment, and learn are the main focuses of these therapies. Each individual child may lean more heavily on one form of therapy than the others, but all are essential in improving his or her prognosis.
With intensive therapy beginning as early as possible, many individuals with autism can lead full and productive lives.
Information on this page should be utilized as a guide, not medical advice. If you feel you need to speak with someone regarding yours or a loved one’s behavioral or mental health, please contact our office.
Connections serves as a regional resource center providing medical, educational, speech/language and dyslexia evaluation services for children and teenagers. Following diagnosis, we work with you and your child to determine the best course of treatment and therapy for them. If you would like to schedule an appointment, please call us at 601-261-5159.