It is estimated that approximately 1 in 68 children have a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the United States.. The diagnosis “ASD” refers to a broad range of characteristics and children with ASD typically experience challenges with regulating emotions, social skills, speech, and engaging in repetitive behaviors. These children also have numerous strengths, which are important to recognize and incorporate into treatment. For parents of children with ASD, there are often many questions regarding the best therapy approaches. It can be difficult to determine which ones might be most appropriate and which have been found to be most successful. This article will explore treatment options that have been found to be effective for children with ASD and their families, based upon the most current research.
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is often one of the most common services utilized by families who have a child with ASD. Several research studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of ABA services, especially when these services are started at an early age (typically before age 4). ABA therapy can be carried out by a licensed psychologist, board certified behavior analyst (BCBA), or a registered behavior technician with oversight by a BCBA. Most often, a BCBA will conduct a comprehensive assessment and work with the family to develop behavioral-based goals and objectives.
The field of ABA considers how people learn and uses that information as a way to teach skills and reduce unwanted behaviors. For example, when a certain behavior is followed with a reward, there is a greater likelihood that the child will repeat that behavior in the future. An ABA therapist will focus on the use of several techniques. Some examples include using clear instructions when helping a child learn a task, teaching small parts of a task at a time, and using repetition when practicing skills.
Overall, ABA therapy programs focus on helping children with ASD practice their skills in both structured and unstructured settings. Services are typically provided in either a center or in the home setting. Family involvement is important, to promote carry-over and follow-through of skills in the home and other settings.
Many children with ASD benefit from outpatient therapies. An occupational therapist (OT) and a speech-language pathologist (SLP) are typically members of a comprehensive outpatient therapy team. Below are descriptions of the types of interventions these professionals can address with your child.
An occupational therapist can provide a comprehensive assessment and develop specific goals to help your child meet their full potential. The areas most commonly addressed by an occupational therapist include self-care skills (ex: feeding, dressing, hygiene, bathing, etc), emotion regulation skills (ex: frustration tolerance, coping skills, etc), play skills, and sensory regulation skills (ex: sensitivities, avoiding behaviors, body awareness, etc). Notably, there is a large body of research supporting the use of occupational therapy to address these various skills for children with ASD and their families. To address these skills, OTs use different, creative methods, which may include real-life practice of the skill, the use of visual or other aids, and the use of playful activities to build foundational skills. For example, an OT might develop a picture schedule with your child’s favorite cartoon character to assist them with completing a task such as brushing their teeth, while also addressing their special interest. The OT would then work with your child in the home setting and assist them with using their aid to go through the routine sequence.
Most commonly, OT is the go-to treatment for addressing the sensory concerns that children with ASD often experience. For many children, they are very sensitive to certain sensations within their environment. They may also have specific sensory preferences and avoid those that are bothersome. There is a growing body of evidence that supports the effectiveness of using sensory-based interventions for children with ASD. An OT can work with your family to evaluate how these unique sensory preferences impact your child’s functioning as well as your family’s overall functioning. They will likely recommend strategies to help your child be more successful in a variety of settings. For example, many children with ASD benefit from the use weighted products, as a way to help calm their sensory systems. Your OT can help you determine how to incorporate the use of these, and other sensory products, into your child’s daily activities. For more information on sensory integration therapy, check out this article!
A speech language pathologist can also provide a comprehensive assessment and work with your family to determine appropriate goals. An SLP will focus on skills such as verbal and nonverbal language and executive functioning (ex: planning, paying attention, problem-solving, etc). Many children with ASD are nonverbal or limited verbally and an SLP can work with your child to find ways to help them increase their vocabulary, utilize visual aids or other ways to express their thoughts, and help them develop ways to more effectively plan and problem-solve during tasks. Oftentimes, an OT and and SLP will work closely together to ensure everyone is on the same page and that treatment goals are comprehensive. For example, your child might use a picture exchange communication system in order to communicate his or her thoughts. Both your OT and SLP would work collaboratively to develop this system and find ways to utilize these tools across tasks.
Mental health therapy can be beneficial for both children with ASD, as well as families of children with ASD. If your child is nonverbal or has limited verbal ability, treatment will likely focus on the observation of behaviors and suggestions on how to implement strategies within your home. For example, a mental health provider might recommend ways to implement routines and will likely make recommendations for additional therapies (OT, SLP, ABA, etc). A mental health therapist can also be a source of support for all family members. Having a child with special needs can often be stressful and a mental health therapist will offer support and guidance and ensure all family members have helpful ways to cope with stress.
There are several treatment options available for children with ASD and their families. Research suggests that a combination of therapies and early intervention lead to the best outcomes. ABA, OT, speech therapy, and mental health therapy can each provide helpful strategies and support for both child and family. We hope that this brief overview of the most commonly used and effective approaches can assist you with determining the best course of action for your family’s unique needs. If you have other ideas for effective therapies, please let us know by leaving a comment below!
Tanner, K., Hand, B.N., O’Toole, G., & Lane, A.E. (2015). Effectiveness of interventions to improve social participation, play, leisure, and restricted and repetitive behaviors in people with autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review.American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 69,1-7.
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Weiss, J.A., Baker, J.K., & Buter, E.M. (2016). Mental health treatment for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).American Psychological Association,15-18.
Welch, C.D., & Polatajko, H.J. (2016). The issue is-Applied behavior analysis, autism, and occupational therapy: A search for understanding.American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 70,1-5.
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