How is autism spectrum disorder (ASD) treated?

Dr. Ronald Leaf
Psychology Specialist

Watch as licensed psychologist and autism specialist Dr. Ronald Leaf discusses how autism should be treated.

Treatment should be multimodal, and evidence is well established that early identification and implementation of behavioral and therapeutic interventions are associated with more positive outcomes. A recent article examined 34 studies of early intensive behavioral and developmental interventions for young children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Gains were seen with intensive interventions emphasizing both specific behavioral (e.g., UCLA/Lovaas approach) and developmental principles (e.g., the Early Start Denver Model). Such interventions resulted in improved cognitive performance, language skills and adaptive behavior skills in some young children with ASD.

However, few research studies were rated of good quality, and existing evidence does not favor any single early-intervention approach. Unfortunately, some children do not make significant progress despite our best efforts, and there are no reliable methods of prognosticating in this regard.

No established medical treatments exist for the core deficits of autism. Medications are used to treat symptoms or associated medical conditions impeding successful function, such as stimulant medications for children with extremely limited attention spans (although the risk of side effects, including increased emotional lability related to these medications, is higher in children with ASD).

The contents of this website are for informational purposes only and are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Nor does the contents of this website constitute the establishment of a physician patient or therapeutic relationship. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Autism cannot be cured, but it can be treated—and the earlier the better. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General recommends that anyone with autism or even suspected autism should begin receiving behavioral, speech and occupational therapy as early as possible—typically starting at 18 months.

Treatment and educational needs for people with autism and related disabilities should include:

  1. Early and accurate diagnosis increases the child’s opportunity for positive development and success.
  2. Professional services for persons with autism may include speech and occupational therapy and require a cooperative effort between professionals and families.
  3. Generally, persons with autism seem to make the best progress when they are in as normal a setting as possible and provided with individualized support and therapy to meet their needs.
  4. By implementing treatment methods in all areas of life progress in persons with autism can be optimized.

Source: Center for Autism & Related Disabilities (CARD)

There is no treatment that can cure autism. There are several types of therapies and some medications that can help people with autism to improve their daily functioning. Medications are primarily used to help control severe behavior problems, such as aggression, or harming themselves or others. Therapies are vital in treatment and appear to have the most benefit if started early on. One of the most prevalent forms of therapy is called applied behavioral analysis, in which good behavior is reinforced and bad behavior is discouraged. Therapy for children or adults with autism is usually multidisciplinary and involves a team of people including doctors and physical, occupational, and speech therapists, and developmental specialists.

There is no cure for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Therapies and behavioral interventions are designed to remedy specific symptoms and can bring about substantial improvement. The ideal treatment plan coordinates therapies and interventions that meet the specific needs of individual children. Most health care professionals agree that the earlier the intervention, the better.

Educational/behavioral interventions: Therapists use highly structured and intensive skill-oriented training sessions to help children develop social and language skills, such as Applied Behavioral Analysis. Family counseling for the parents and siblings of children with ASD often helps families cope with the challenges of living with a child with ASD.

Medications: Doctors may prescribe medications for treatment of specific ASD-related symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Antipsychotic medications are used to treat severe behavioral problems. Seizures can be treated with one or more anticonvulsant drugs. Medications used for attention deficit disorder can help decrease impulsivity and hyperactivity.

Other therapies: There are a number of controversial therapies or interventions available for people with ASD, but few, if any, are supported by scientific studies. Parents should use caution before adopting any unproven treatments. Although dietary interventions have been helpful in some children, parents should follow their child's nutritional status carefully.

This answer is bases on source informatin from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Dr. Deborah Mulligan, MD

The symptoms of autism spectrum disorders vary from mild peculiarities to severe disabilities. Most doctors now believe that autism is not a distinct disease, but instead is a collection of disorders of brain development.

There is no known cure for autism. A child with autism will need specialized services aimed at the management of his/her disorder. Early diagnosis and treatment is important, and may improve the ability of the child with autism to function more effectively in life. Treatment for autism is usually a very intensive, comprehensive undertaking that involves the child’s entire family and a team of professionals. Some programs may take place in your home.These may be based in your home with professional specialists and trained therapists or may include training for you to serve as a therapist for your child under supervision of a professional. Some programs are delivered in a specialized center, classroom or preschool. It is not unusual for a family to choose to combine more than one treatment method. The terms “treatment” and “therapy” may be used interchangeably. The word “intervention” may also be used to describe a treatment or therapy. Examples of these treatments are Speech & Language Therapy, Occupational Therapy, or the care of a Neurologist or Gastroenterologist. 

If one of your children is diagnosed with autism, there is an increased risk that the same disorder will occur in subsequent children. Speak with your pediatrician about receiving counseling services to discuss this increased risk. Visit the American Academy of Pediatrics Healthy Children webpage to learn more.

Dr. Latha Soorya, MD
Psychiatrist (Therapist)

The primary and first line treatment for autism includes intensive, comprehensive behavioral/educational treatments starting in early childhood (i.e., under age 3) and promote the development of the unique social-communication deficits seen in young children with autism.

Most people agree that therapies for autism require a "team" approach: a pediatrician for general health concerns and a “home base,” a developmental pediatrician or neuropsychologist who specializes in autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), various therapists (occupational, speech, physical and applied behavior analysis) and school support (an aide or therapist). Some children benefit from a nutritionist, a psychiatrist or a neurologist, depending on their individual needs. And, of course the parents/guardians play a huge part in care. Applied Behavior Analysis—an individualized approach to analyzing a child's strengths and weaknesses—has been shown to be effective and is a big part of many ASD therapies. This analysis is used to teach the child how to succeed at desired behaviors. You may encounter alternative treatments for ASDs; unfortunately, there are not good studies that prove they are effective, and some alternative treatments may even be detrimental to your child's health. Please check with your pediatrician first!

Kids with autism spectrum disorder may need to go to special schools, take special classes, have a classroom assistant or even be taught at home. None of this means they can't live happy lives.

Educational approaches, such as applied behavioral analysis (or ABA), which has become widely accepted as an effective treatment and is backed up by scientific evidence. Educational approaches are the cornerstone for treating any form of autism, and they include teaching autistic kids, many hours per week, the social, academic, and daily living skills that most children acquire naturally; providing speech, language, and occupational therapy; and generally minimizing the kinds of behaviors that make autistic kids stand out and instilling patterns that help them fit in and function independently.

Sometimes medications help, too, by easing difficult symptoms, especially aggressive or obsessive behavior, or helping to relieve anxiety.

From The Smart Parent's Guide: Getting Your Kids Through Checkups, Illnesses, and Accidents by Jennifer Trachtenberg.

The Smart Parent's Guide: Getting Your Kids Through Checkups, Illnesses, and Accidents

More About this Book

The Smart Parent's Guide: Getting Your Kids Through Checkups, Illnesses, and Accidents

What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do! "Moms and dads need expert guidelines, especially when it comes to their kids' health. This book reveals the inside strategies I use myself-I'm a parent, too!-to avoid critical, common blunders where it matters most: in the ER, pediatrics ward, all-night pharmacy, exam room, or any other medical hot spot for kids. These tips could save your child’s life one day. Even tomorrow." -Dr. Jen Making health care decisions for your child can be overwhelming in this age of instant information. It's easy to feel like you know next to nothing or way too much. Either way, you may resort to guessing instead of making smart choices. That’s why the nation's leading health care oversight group, The Joint Commission, joined forces with Dr. Jennifer Trachtenberg on this book: to help you make the right decisions, whether you're dealing with a checkup or a full-blown crisis. The Smart Parent's Guide will give you the information you need to manage the pediatric health care system. Dr. Jen understands the questions parents face—as a mom, she's faced them herself. She walks you through everything: from how to choose the best ER for kids (not adults) to when to give a kid medicine (or not to) to how pediatricians care for their own children (prepare to be surprised). Her goal is your goal: to protect the health of your children. There simply is nothing more important.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Early, specialized educational-behavioral interventions are generally recommended for children with autism, with one-on-one therapies for twenty-five hours per week and sometimes more. The best-studied intervention is a very structured, repetitive, and intensive behavioral approach, applied behavioral analysis (ABA), which rewards the child for responding to behavioral goals such as looking toward where their name is being called. Another commonly used intervention is "floor time," which focuses on engaging young children in social interactions. In addition, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) receive speech therapy, which focuses on speech development and conversational language skills; and occupational therapy which often focuses on sensory processing issues. Medication is often used for associated inattention and hyperactivity, aggression and disruptive behavior, anxiety, and sleep disturbances that interfere with function and learning.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.