TREATMENT FOR ASSOCIATED CONDITIONS
Your child may need services to treat certain conditions that are related to autism but not part of the core symptoms of autism. These often are called “related services.” Examples include:
Most children with ASD participate in speech-language therapy. SLT addresses a range of challenges often faced by people with autism. For example, some autistic people do not speak or have limited speech. Others may talk to communicate, yet have trouble having a conversation or using or understanding the nuances of language and nonverbal cues when talking with others.
SLT coordinates the mechanics of speech with the meaning and social use of language. It begins with an evaluation by a speech-language pathologist (SLP) to assess the individual’s verbal skills (expressive language), as well as their ability to understand verbal and nonverbal communication from others (receptive language). From this evaluation, the SLP sets goals that may include mastering spoken language and/or learning nonverbal communication skills, such as signs or gestures.
For those who have trouble communicating with speech, speech-language pathologists determine the best device and method for training on use of an assisted communication device. For people with more speech, therapy may focus on effectively using communication.
In each case, the goal is to help the person communicate in more useful and functional ways. Speech-language pathologists can provide therapy one-on-one, in a small group or in a classroom setting.
SLPs can help a child learn to communicate through augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices or strategies. AAC refers to all forms of communication outside of verbal speech and may include:
- Speech-generating devices
- Picture cards
- Apps on mobile phones
Occupational therapy (OT) addresses a combination of cognitive, physical and motor skills. Its goals include helping a person increase independence and participate more fully in life. For a young child with autism, occupational therapy often focuses on skills related to:
- Appropriate play
Therapy begins with a certified occupational therapist evaluating the person, including their:
- Developmental level
- Related learning styles
- Social abilities
- Environmental needs
- Family needs
Based on this evaluation, the therapist determines goals and selects strategies and tactics for enhancing key skills. For example, goals may include:
- Independent dressing
- Use of the toilet
- Improved social skills
- Improved fine motor skills
- Improved visual perceptual skills
OT sessions often are 30 minutes to one hour long. The number of sessions per week is based on the person’s needs. Strategies and skills learned are then practiced at home and in other settings, including school.
Many children and adults with autism have difficulties processing sensory information, such as movement, touch, smell, sight and sound. Sensory integration (SI) therapy uses a variety of techniques that improve how the brain interprets and integrates this information. Occupational therapy often includes sensory integration.
Certified occupational and physical therapists provide SI therapy. They begin with an evaluation to determine a person’s sensitivities. From this information, the therapist plans an individualized program that matches sensory stimulation with physical movement. This can help improve how the brain processes and organizes incoming information. The therapy often includes equipment such as swings, trampolines and slides.
SI therapy can help those with sensory issues better manage learning and social interactions. Family members and teachers often find that its techniques can help calm an affected child or adult, reinforce positive behavior and help with transitions between activities.
Many autistic people have challenges with motor skills, such as sitting, walking, running and jumping. Physical therapy (PT) focuses on problems with movement that cause real-life limitations. PT can improve poor muscle tone, balance and coordination.
Certified physical therapists deliver physical therapy beginning with an evaluation of a person’s physical abilities and developmental level. They then design programs of activities that target areas of challenge. PT sessions often run 30 minutes to one hour long. They include assisted movement, various forms of exercise and the use of orthopedic equipment. The number of sessions per week is based on the individual’s needs.
Feeding issues are common in children with autism and can lead to nutrition problems. Feeding can be stressful for the child and the family. Among others, feeding issues include:
- Difficulty chewing
- Difficulty swallowing
- Challenges trying new foods or textures
- Distress at mealtimes
Feeding therapy can help people develop more effective eating routines and behaviors. Evaluations can determine the causes of feeding problems, including medical problems, behavioral challenges and sensory issues.
Talk to your child’s health care provider about the benefits of feeding therapy. Overcoming feeding issues can improve overall health and decrease challenging behaviors.
More information about feeding therapy, including things you can do at home to help your child with the feeding process, can be found in Exploring Feeding Behavior in Autism: A Guide for Parents from the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network at autismspeaks.org/tool-kit.
Researchers are looking at the effects of a gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) diet for people with autism. Many families have found their children’s comfort level and behaviors improved with this eating plan. But it does not work for everyone. While the GFCF diet has been used in the autism community for a few decades, it has not been shown to improve autism symptoms or behaviors in controlled group studies. Talk to a dietician or your child’s health care provider about the GFCF diet.
Social skills training
Individuals with autism often have a trouble with social interactions. Social skills training in one-on-one and peer group settings is a common treatment. Social skills training focuses on both simple skills, like making eye contact, and more difficult skills, like inviting a friend to play.
Social skills training is not an official or certified form of therapy. But social workers, speech-language pathologists and psychologists often include it when treating children and adults with autism. Parents, family members and other caregivers can learn how to include social skills training in and outside the home. There is a growing literature supporting the effectiveness of social skills therapy in improving social behavior in cognitively able individuals with autism and additional research is underway.