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Autism therapies: What educational and medical interventions are available?

About the author: Marla Hardee Milling is a freelance writer in Asheville, North Carolina. Her articles have appeared in a wide variety of publications, both online and in print, including Cooking Smart, Healthgate, Pinnacle Living, Blue...

Therapeutic help for autistic kids

The first question any parent will ask after hearing their child has been diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder is, "What can I do to help my child?" Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut, one-size-fits-all answer. Autism encompasses a wide umbrella of disabilities and symptoms, and each individual child may respond differently to the available therapies. Here's a quick overview of what's out there to help your autistic child.

OVERVIEW OF SOME EDUCATIONAL INTERVENTIONS:

ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis): Lacing beads from BeyondPlay.comOne of the oldest and most widely recognized therapies. Developed by Dr Ivar Lovaas, who believed social and behavioral skills could be taught to autistic children, even those with extreme symptoms. A reward system is used to encourage a child to learn a particular task or response. [Find out more about ABA here.]
TEACCH: Developed by the late Dr Eric Schopler, the TEACCH (for Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication-handicapped CHildren) approach is administered through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The TEACCH model, in a nutshell, implements visual supports to make the sequence of daily activities predictable and understandable. [Find out more about TEACCH here.]
PIVOTAL RESPONSE THERAPY: Doctors Lynn and Bob Koegel developed the Pivotal Response Intervention model after defining specific areas that are "central to wide areas of functioning such that improvements will occur across a large number of behaviors."
DIR/FLOORTIME: This approach incorporates a variety of therapies, including sensory-motor, language, social functioning, occupational, and speech therapy, along with floortime play sessions and family support.

OVERVIEW OF SOME MEDICAL INTERVENTIONS:

PRESCRIPTION DRUGS: Educational therapy is one thing -- but introducing a new chemical into your child's system can be quite another. Thoroughd and thoughtful communications with a healthcare provider should be used to determine if drugs are necessary and helpful to a particular child. There are medications, such as risperidone, which has been approved for treating irritability in autistic children. This is just one of a variety of prescription drugs administered in the hopes of controlling symptoms. Take your time and do your research before administering a medication.
NUTRITIONAL SUPPLEMENTS: Vitamin and nutritional supplements are often recommended to enhance the diet of an autistic child. Some parents implement a gluten-free, casein-free diet, and use vitamins and other supplements. There is a wide variety available, and again, it is important to seek expert advice in determining which is best for your child.
CHELATION THERAPY: Chelation therapy is used to clear the body of toxic heavy metals -- such as mercury and lead. That sounds great until you realize that chelation can be dangerous (and has proven to be fatal in some instances). During chelation treatment, certain chemicals are infused into the bloodstream. There, they bind with the heavy metals, allowing them to be excreted from the body via urine. Make sure you do thorough research before entering into any decision about this controversial treatment.

There's no catch-all treatment

Alabama parent Suzanne Dowling says she has tried many different combinations of therapies through the years. She found the TEACCH method very successful, along with speech and occupational therapies. What does she think is the best place for a parent to begin researching therapy methods? "I would suggest going online to their state's Autism Society of America chapter website. Then go to the message boards and see what other parents are doing."

A few words of caution, however: every child with autism is different, so what works great for one kid may do nothing for another. "Be wary of offers that would 'cure' your child and/or want lots of money upfront to receive their services," says Dowling. "All therapies and services should be checked out thoroughly before putting up any money. Ask for references!"

For more on autism, also see:

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