Best Options to Treat Autism?

What are your options for treatment if your child is diagnosed with autism?

Ellen Rome, M.D.

Ellen Rome, M.D.

Dr. Ellen Rome is a board-certified pediatrician who was among the first in the U.S. to be board certified in adolescent medicine. She... Read more

Differing views of the best treatment for autism exist. Behavioral training and management is labor-intensive but comes with the highest rewards. The most evidence-based method for behavioral modification in the autistic child — meaning the one showing best outcomes in scientific studies — is called applied behavior analysis, or ABA. The goal is to help the child communicate his or her needs effectively, with rewards for correct behaviors; this strategy is grounded in the thought that kids will repeat rewarded behavior more than they will repeat behaviors that are ignored. ABA is labor-intensive, requiring 30 to 40 hours a week of one-on-one interventions with an ABA-trained specialist. ABA has been criticized for being draining, but its methods are successful, with a majority of preschoolers trained in this way able to succeed in mainstream school by kindergarten or elementary school.

Another structured form of intervention is called TEACCH, or Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication-handicapped Children. This approach is based on the concept that the child should not be molded to the environment, but the environment to the child. Its focus is on improving communication, social and coping skills, and like ABA, it requires intensive one-on-one training.

Other modalities include speech therapy to help improve language and social skills and occupational therapy (OT) and physical therapy to help with coordination and knowing their body space, with OT working on processing input from all of their senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell) in non-overwhelming ways. 

These sensorineural approaches are less intensively structured and less evidence-based than ABA. Future studies need to compare and contrast outcomes between the two approaches.