Autism therapies: What educational and medical interventions are available?

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.

Therapies for kids with autism

After the initial autism diagnosis (and, of course, coming to terms with that), the most important step a parent can take is to discover the available therapies and what each can offer, as they work with experts to tailor a program that is right for their child.

Treatment options consist of educational programs to teach a child as well as medical interventions. Often, it is finding a combination of therapies that work best to give a child their best shot at a productive life.

Dr Carol Harrison of the Department of Human Services at Stephen F Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, says she advises parents to seek out support groups and ask other parents of autistic children what has worked for them. She also says it is critical to work within the school system, as part of a team, to decide which services and therapies will be the best fit for a child. “There’s not one specific or right service or therapy,” says Harrison. “I think it’s always evolving, and that makes it difficult to wade through — and there are so many therapies.”

Don’t give up: There are many options

Before any therapy is approached, it is important to understand that it is a trial and error process to determine which combination of therapies is most beneficial.

Autism - experience, advice, awareness

Dr Doreen Fairbank, professor of psychology at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Kathryn Cole, also of the Meredith faculty, say that if the condition is diagnosed early and a child receives proper therapeutic intervention, symptoms of autism can be dramatically improved. In fact, Fairbank and Cole have seen this type of improvement first-hand — Cole is the director of the Meredith Autism Program which provides applied behavioral analysis and discrete trial teaching to autistic children, while Fairbank is the previous director.

“Our program has helped a number of children to lead fairly normal lives even after a diagnosis of autism,” Cole says, adding that the key is early detection. ” The sooner parents notice the symptoms of autism and seek therapy, the more effective that therapy can be.”

“Autism is a disorder of social, language, and behavioral deficits,” says Fairbank. “Typically, parents will notice social deficits especially during child/ mother interactions. One sign would be if a child rarely returns a smile or gesture when being picked up or spoken to.”

Other signs to look for include:

  1. Not babbling
  2. Not displaying excitement and happiness during social interactions
  3. Language is slow to develop
  4. More temper tantrums than typical for age
  5. Resistance to change (i.e. clothes, schedule, environment)
  6. Fixations on toys, but not actually playing with the toy in a traditional way

For a more comprehensive list of the signs of autism, check out our article, Autism signs & symptoms, qualities & quirks.

“Parents need to be the long-term advocate for the child ,and not postpone screenings or meeting with a physician. Early intervention reduces the risk of long term cognitive, social, and behavioral problems,” says Fairbank. She adds that siblings should also be a part of intervention process and treatment team, as the brother and sister relationships are some of the most important relationships in an autistic kid’s life.

On the next page: Overview of educational and medical interventions