Interventions and treatment of children with autism is usually quite complex, costly and involves a large time investment to alleviate the disabling symptoms of an ASD and to improve the person's adaptive skills and ability to learn and care for his or her needs.
The core symptoms of ASD, (which include social impairments, language disabilities, and repetitive and restricted behaviours and interests) must be addressed and there can be additional challenges which require attention such as medical issues, intellectual disabilities, hypo and hyper-sensitivities, other sensory issues, and behavior difficulties such as hyperactivity, compulsivity, aggression, anxiety, etc.
There is no single treatment or protocol for treating the symptoms of ASD conditions. Most people respond to some combination of the following interventions:
- Specialized educational programming based on highly structured behavioural approaches such as ABA, PRT and other related interventions;
- Speech/language therapy and augmentative communication tools such as PECs;
- Occupational therapy for sensory integration and motor skills development;
- Medical approaches and medications to control symptoms;
- Biomedical approaches and diets, such as the gluten-free, casein-free diet;
- Social and play related interventions;
- Functional and life-skills building programs; and
- Counselling and other psychological therapies.
The needs of children and adults with autism will also change over time as individuals develop and learn though various educational programs, respond to treatment methods and as their developmental needs naturally change over the lifespan.
In many cases several methodologies and interventions will be integrated in order to meet the needs of the individual. For example, a communication system such as PECS might be used within a behavior-based ABA program using Discreet Trial Training.
The success of any treatment will also depend greatly on the involvement and education of parents and caregivers. Parents know their children best and they are key partners with educators and therapists in identifying changing behavior issues, skills, interests and challenges. Good programs usually have a parent training component so that parents and families can continue therapy and interventions at home.
What Makes an Effective Educational Intervention Program?
In general, an effective program will be comprehensive, supported by scientific research, tailored to the individual’s needs and will include:
- Design and delivery by trained professionals;
- Early and ongoing individual assessment;
- Intensive, specialized educational techniques to help people with ASDs communicate and learn new social and functional skills;
- A highly structured predictable schedule and engaging activities which include a stepped learning approach;
- A consistent education plan (tailored to individual needs, skills and interests) with built in evaluation methods;
- Supportive behavioural intervention with clear guidelines and expectations for behavior;
- Written or graphic supports to help the person understand and anticipate coming events;
- Parental and family participation in assessment, curriculum planning, instruction, monitoring and evaluation. Family members know the person best and will have the clearest understanding of the individual's history and learning style; and,
- Intensive family support and training.
Treatment may be offered in an agency program, in school, and/or in the home. Children with severe autism usually require a highly structured environment with a one-to-one teacher-to-student ratio or a small group environment. Other people with ASDs may do well in a more general education environment with appropriate academic and social support.
To learn more about which therapies are available in your community please contact your nearest Autism Society.
Autism Society Canada does not endorse any one single treatment method as being the right choice for all people with ASDs. We provide a wide variety of information to help caregivers and people with ASDs choose which treatments and programs they feel will be the most beneficial.
Some questions to ask:
- Is there professional (peer-reviewed) research supporting the treatment and how long has it been established?
- Has it been successful for other children?
- Are there any risks involved – have their been negative reports?
- What are the qualifications of the people delivering the treatment?
- Are activities well planned and organized with schedules and routines?
- Will my child receive individual attention?
- Will there be motivating rewards?
- Will behavior be evaluated and recorded?
- Can the treatment be integrated into family life and is there support for the family built into the treatment plan?
- What is the financial cost and how much will be covered by your provincial/territorial government assistance programs?
- What evaluation tools will be used to measure progress and effectiveness of the treatment?
Challenging Behaviours may be one of the most difficult aspects of ASDs for some people with autism and for parents, family members, caregivers and teachers. Behaviours can range from being unusual or eccentric to being aggressive and/or dangerous to self and others. Hyperactivity, tantrums, repetitive hand-flapping, finger-snapping, rocking and head-banging are examples. Some people with autism may self-injure themselves and may show little or no sensitivity to their injuries. In some cases, they may also lash out at others. Most experts agree that the function and causes of such behaviours can usually be identified and the person can be helped to find better ways to express and meet their needs. Such behaviours can be caused by sensory and physical problems (such as hyper or hypo-sensitivity), frustration caused by an inability to communicate needs in the usual ways, anxiety caused by changes in routine, effects of medications, being bullied, etc. Severe behaviours should always be assessed by an accredited professional with specific training in autism, such as a behavioural psychologist or psychiatrist. See Counselling.
Autism: The Road Back. Documentary from the Knowledge Network features three families in BC and the different types of therapies each family has chosen.
Canadian Autism Intervention Research Network (CAIRN): Reviews high quality studies of various behavioural treatments, drug treatments and educational interventions.
"Educating Children with Autism," National Academies of Science: The importance of effective and early treatment is presented in this report.
Evidence for Effectiveness of Treatments for Autism Spectrum Disorders In Children and Adolescents, Executive Summary, October 2008. U.S. [PDF], The Health Resources Commission, Office for Oregon Health Policy & Research, 1225 Ferry Street SE Salem, OR 97301 Phone: 503.373.1629