Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is often diagnosed in childhood. It includes challenges that are unique to each individual it affects. Some of these challenges can include difficulties in social interaction, engaging in repetitive behaviors, sensitivity to sensory experiences (like loud noises or bright lights), and difficulty with communication, just to name a few. The way it presents in people can differ greatly from one to another – no two people with autism look the same.
Early intervention is one of the most important things for parents to consider when a child is given a diagnosis. Starting intervention at a young age can make a significant impact when it comes to a child’s development. Research has shown that early intervention leads to the best possible outcomes for the future. Interventions for autism spectrum disorder focus on both immediate and future challenges and are pivotal in increasing the overall quality of life for a growing child.
Early intervention programs are vital resources for parents, but combing through options can be incredibly overwhelming. There are many types of therapy for autism, focusing on different aspects of functioning. While some treatments are meant to reduce challenging behaviors and teach prosocial behaviors, others may focus on motor skills or mental health. Some may be for emotional regulation, and others may focus more on self-management.
While the growing number of treatments can be daunting for parents, knowing their child and what different services offer can help in choosing the best possible combination of interventions. Knowing a bit more about each of these services can make navigation a much smoother and more impactful experience.
- Behavioral Therapies
- Developmental Therapies
- Alternative and Complementary Therapies
- Technology-Based Therapies
- Personalizing Therapeutic Approaches
- Financial Considerations and Resources
Behavioral therapy is one of the most common types of therapy for autism. After receiving a diagnosis, doctors typically provide parents with information about behavioral therapies such as applied behavior analysis (ABA). Behavioral therapies typically focus on challenging behaviors, communication, and social skills. These therapies usually employ systematic techniques, individualized plans, and positive reinforcement. They focus on improving a child’s life by shifting various parts of their behavior. These types of therapy may be ideal if your child engages in problem behaviors or has not met typical developmental milestones for their age.
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) aims to increase desired behaviors and decrease challenging behaviors. It is an early intensive behavioral intervention that most families are informed of after an autism diagnosis. Parents work closely with Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) to create individualized treatment programs for their children. They then use various techniques grounded in the science of behaviorism to make meaningful changes. ABA incorporates positive reinforcement and works by breaking down behaviors and skills into smaller, achievable steps. It focuses on the child’s strengths and challenges and meets children at their current level. ABA has been closely researched for over 35 years, and is the only scientifically proven treatment for autism, with hundreds of peer-reviewed and replicated studies demonstrating its efficacy. ABA therapy applies to many individuals and for varying life needs and is not limited to children with autism. It can be beneficial for individuals of any age, both neurotypical and neurodivergent.
Critics of ABA have argued that the therapy can be too intense, too rigid, and focuses more on conformity rather than the growth of the individual. Earlier models of ABA were much more focused on compliance and had a history of teaching behaviors meant to make the individual look more neurotypical. The field of behavior analysis is ever-evolving and has become more focused on functional skills and ethical implementation. Modern ABA programs are much more flexible, naturally based, trauma-informed, and child-centered.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Some behaviors aren’t as obvious to others because they occur internally. Thoughts are considered to be a private behavior that all people perform. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy that focuses on managing thoughts and emotions. It uses some of the basic principles of behaviorism and is similar to ABA. It differs from ABA because it primarily focuses on patterns of thought. Observable behavior changes may not be an indication of internal feelings, therefore, CBT may be a suitable intervention to pursue for those individuals whose struggles are more thought-based. CBT can be especially helpful for those who struggle with anxiety, obsessive-compulsive or repetitive behaviors, and emotional regulation. In CBT, children learn coping strategies to deal with overwhelming situations and adapt their behaviors to different social settings.
Cognitive behavior therapy is also not limited to children with autism spectrum disorder. CBT can be beneficial for those with autism spectrum disorder, anxiety, depression, substance abuse problems, certain phobias, PTSD, OCD, and more.
Social Skills Training
Social skills training (SST), not surprisingly, teaches social skills to individuals with autism. It primarily focuses on conversational skills, nonverbal communication, and social interaction. It teaches skills such as understanding social cues, engaging in conversations, and making friends. Social skills training often occurs in conjunction with ABA therapy and typically involves activities such as role-playing and interactive scenarios with peers. These types of activities are designed to help children apply their new skills in the real world. It provides individuals with a controlled space to practice their social skills without the pressure and variables of real-life situations. Social skills training gives the participants feedback and chances to make mistakes. SST can also help to address issues like bullying. It focuses on teaching children self-advocacy and handling challenging social situations before they happen.
Developmental therapies are designed to support children with autism in their overall growth and development. Developmental therapies include a range of specialized areas that target different aspects of growth and learning.
Occupational Therapy (OT)
Occupational therapy (OT) focuses on everyday skills and managing sensory experiences. Children with autism are often overwhelmed by everyday sensory input such as bright lights or loud noises. Occupational therapy addresses sensory processing, which refers to the organization of sensory information from the body and the external world. It can also help with children who are sensory seeking and engage in behaviors such as spinning, chewing on various items, making loud noises, or dangerous behaviors like jumping off of furniture. It can help to improve body awareness and proprioception, which is beneficial for sensory-motor integration. Through occupational therapy, children learn strategies to better process and cope with sensory input.
Occupational therapy also specializes in fine and gross motor skills. Motor skills are important for writing, dressing, and other self-care tasks. Improving these skills can increase independence significantly. Occupational therapists work closely with educational settings in creating environments that are accommodating to the sensory needs of children with autism. This ensures that children can participate more fully in learning.
Speech-language therapy focuses on improving communication skills. Speech-language pathologists specialize in language delays, language development, articulation, expressive and receptive language abilities, and non-verbal communication. Speech therapists use various types of communication, from vocal speaking to sign language. Technology can also be used to better promote communication and engagement. Speech-language therapy can teach children with autism to understand social communication cues and to better interact with others.
Physical therapy is designed to improve aspects of physical well-being. It targets motor coordination and balance, similar to occupational therapy, and helps children with autism develop greater physical skills. Specialized equipment is commonly used during PT sessions to improve flexibility and fluidity of movement. Physical therapy includes different recreational activities, promoting physical fitness and also providing opportunities for social interaction.
Alternative and Complementary Therapies
Alternative and complementary therapies offer a variety of different approaches to support individuals with autism. These therapies may integrate creative and sensory techniques, addressing emotional and sensory well-being. Parents may choose to pursue these types of treatment in tandem with behavioral and developmental therapies.
Music therapy uses music to promote communication and emotional connection in individuals, both with and without autism. It may be especially helpful for those who struggle with verbal communication. In addition to possibly improving communication, music therapy may provide comfort and emotional support. Research in music therapy is growing and may suggest that music therapy is beneficial for individuals on the autism spectrum. For music therapy in particular, is important to consider a child’s sensitivity to audible sensory input.
Art therapy can offer an avenue for creative self-expression. It encourages children to convey their emotions, thoughts, and experiences through the creation of art in many different forms, such as drawing, painting, and sculpting. Art therapy may be beneficial for those who have faced significant adversity or traumatic events, and individuals who are sensory-seeking. Creating art may aid children with autism in reducing anxiety and improving emotional regulation.
Animal-assisted therapy focuses on interactions with trained animals. Some goals of animal-assisted therapy may be to enhance social skills, emotional regulation, and self-confidence in children with autism. The presence of animals may create a safe and welcoming environment for children to work through emotions. Equine therapy is especially popular. Animal-assisted therapy is purported to promote emotional regulation and sensory integration. Animal-assisted therapy could be a great possibility for children who enjoy safely interacting with animals.
Technology-based therapy helps individuals a bit differently than therapies mentioned earlier. Instead of in-person interactions and physical activities, technology-based therapy uses technology to support people with autism. These therapies use different tools and platforms to teach. Technology can be a great tool for all types of therapy, and autism treatment is no different!
Assistive technology usually includes devices and software that help with communication, learning, and daily living skills. Some might include speech-generating devices or visual schedules, and could involve wearable or home devices to boost independence and safety. Telehealth and remote monitoring play a role in delivering technology services and therapy interventions. Assistive technology can be used in many different types of therapy. The best part, arguably, is that it can allow for more people to receive services. People in rural areas or other locations that don’t offer certain services can gain access using assistive technology, thus making access more convenient and flexible.
Virtual Reality Therapy
Virtual reality (VR) therapy provides immersive experiences in a controlled environment. Using VR can help individuals with autism develop various skills and manage sensory sensitivities by practicing real-world scenarios. VR can also be used with other traditional therapy methods. It can be helpful for some in creating a more comprehensive and effective treatment approach. It is important to note, however, that using virtual reality therapy in children involves ethical considerations and safety protocols that need careful attention.
Personalizing Therapeutic Approaches
There are a few different points to consider when personalizing therapeutic approaches for your child with autism spectrum disorder. It is important to remember that treatments should be individualized. Autism takes an infinite number of forms, and so treatment should be the same. Each child has unique strengths and struggles, and they all have different needs, families, cultures, and priorities. Customizing therapy to meet the needs of the child can maximize the effectiveness of treatment and make treatment a more enjoyable experience.
When choosing different treatment combinations, collaboration should be kept in mind. Each of the different treatments brings something different to the table. With collaboration, a more comprehensive plan can be developed with all the different goals and objectives in mind. In addition, other members of the treatment team can make sure to uphold the plans of the other treatments. For example, an occupational therapist can complete their work while following the behavior plan created by the child’s BCBA.
Finally, progress must be continually monitored. Just as autism looks different in different individuals, it can change in individuals too. Regular assessments can help to track an individual’s development and determine if a change in treatment is necessary.
Financial Considerations and Resources
Navigating through types of therapy is stressful enough, but parents should also learn about the different financial resources and other support systems. Insurance coverage may be one of the most important sources for families. ABA therapy is commonly covered by insurance due to its demonstrated effectiveness as a treatment for autism. Speech therapy and occupational therapy may also be covered, depending on the type of insurance. Families should make sure to review policies and see what is covered, what is preauthorized, and possible limitations.
Government programs such as Medicaid provide significant financial assistance for eligible individuals with autism. This assistance can cover various services including therapy. State programs and grants may also offer families some treatment options, emphasizing the importance of exploring these resources based on location and individual circumstances. Grant programs can also fund specific therapies or interventions. Parents should seek out information based on their location to determine what could be covered and how to access it.
Local support groups and community resources are invaluable resources in addressing financial needs. They can offer information and guidance to families. Much of the information about insurance and government programs can be available to people who are a part of these local groups. They also offer emotional support to families. Community organizations and nonprofits may offer financial aid. They may also offer low-cost or sliding-scale services. Parents should consider looking into the community for guidance from others who are going through or have gone through the same experiences.
With so many treatment options available, selecting the right ones may seem to be an impossible task. Parents should always keep in mind their child’s strengths and needs when it comes to making these types of decisions. Consulting with a psychologist or primary care physician may be a good place to start. They can offer families some guidance on which treatments may be best for their child. Prioritizing a personalized approach and continuing to monitor progress can improve outcomes dramatically.