Each child and adult with autism is unique, so each autism intervention plan should be tailored to address specific needs. 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. They also may include training for you to serve as a therapist for your child under the 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 words treatment, therapy and intervention all mean the same thing.

Your child’s pediatrician, developmental pediatrician, psychologist or social worker can make suggestions or help you prioritize therapies based on your child’s strengths and challenges identified in their evaluation. Once you have narrowed down therapy options, learn more about each to help you decide about treatments.

For many children, autism is complicated by medical conditions and symptoms that are not exclusive to autism.

If your child has biological or medical conditions, these will need to be treated, too. Examples include:

Treatment programs may combine therapies for both core symptoms of autism and these associated symptoms. For example, if sleep disturbances are not caused by a medical issue, a behavioral intervention focused on communication and other challenges might also be used to address them.

Many children benefit from receiving multiple therapies provided in the same learning format. Intervention can include:

  • Time spent in a developmental program
  • Speech-language therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • One-on-one or small group sessions
  • Parent-delivered interventions
Therapies include tools, services and teaching methods that can help your child reach their full potential. Experts recommend 25 hours of structured therapy per week for preschool-aged children.

Talk to your child’s pediatrician for more information about therapies. Learn more about recommended therapies before your child begins treatment. Talk to experienced parents, look into the research supporting it and make sure you have a good understanding of what is involved before beginning any therapy for your child.

Research and experience have revealed a great deal of information about autism. But it remains a complex disorder that impacts each person differently. Many autistic children make remarkable progress with the right combination of services and supports. Just as your child’s challenges can’t be summed up in one word, they may not be remedied with one therapy. Each challenge must be addressed with an appropriate therapy. No single approach works for every child.

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Treatment options

Many families choose one type of intervention that best meets the needs of their child and their parenting style. All of the services your child receives then are based on that specific intervention type. These interventions were developed just to treat autism. They require many hours per week and address behavioral, developmental and/or educational goals. During treatment, you may need to re-evaluate which method is best for your child. Therapies are not always delivered in a pure format. Some providers who work with one format may use techniques from another format.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Behavior analysis was originally described by psychologist B.F. Skinner in the 1930s. The principles and methods of behavior analysis have been applied effectively in many circumstances to develop a wide range of skills in learners with and without disabilities.

Behavior analysis is a scientifically validated approach to understanding behavior and how it is affected by the environment. In behavior analysis, “behavior” refers to actions and skills. “Environment” includes any influence that may change or be changed by one’s behavior. This includes aspects of the physical setting, such as sights, sounds, smells, as well as the social setting, such as who is present and how they might be communicating. Behavior analysis has helped many kinds of learners acquire many different skills – from healthier lifestyles to learning a new language.

Behavior analysis focuses on the principles that explain how learning takes place. Positive reinforcement is one of these principles. When a behavior is followed by some sort of reward, the behavior is more likely to be repeated and strengthened. Through decades of research, experts have developed many techniques for increasing useful behaviors and reducing those that may cause harm or interfere with learning.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the use of these techniques and principles to bring about meaningful and positive change in behavior. Since the early 1960s, thousands of therapists have used ABA to teach new skills and reduce problem behaviors in learners with autism. These skills include: communication, play, social, academic, self-care, work and community living.

Research has demonstrated that ABA is effective for improving children’s outcomes, especially their functional skills (daily living skills), and can also improve cognitive ability and language in young children. Cognitive abilities include anything related to thinking and learning. Over the past several decades, different models using ABA have emerged, all of which use strategies that are based on Skinner’s work.

ABA may be hard to understand until you see it in action. It may be helpful to start by describing what all the different methods of ABA have in common. All ABA methods use a three-step process to teach:

  1. An antecedent. This is a verbal or physical stimulus, such as a command or request. This may come from the child, the environment or another person.
  2. A resulting behavior. This is the child’s response or lack of response to the antecedent.
  3. A consequence. This depends on the behavior. The consequence can include positive reinforcement of the desired behavior or no reaction for incorrect responses.