No cure exists for autism spectrum disorder, and there is no one-size-fits-all treatment. The goal of treatment is to maximize your child's ability to function by reducing autism spectrum disorder symptoms and supporting development and learning. Early intervention during the preschool years can help your child learn critical social, communication, functional and behavioral skills.
The range of home-based and school-based treatments and interventions for autism spectrum disorder can be overwhelming, and your child's needs may change over time. Your health care provider can recommend options and help identify resources in your area.
If your child is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, talk to experts about creating a treatment strategy and build a team of professionals to meet your child's needs.
Treatment options may include:
- Behavior and communication therapies. Many programs address the range of social, language and behavioral difficulties associated with autism spectrum disorder. Some programs focus on reducing problem behaviors and teaching new skills. Other programs focus on teaching children how to act in social situations or communicate better with others. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) can help children learn new skills and generalize these skills to multiple situations through a reward-based motivation system.
- Educational therapies. Children with autism spectrum disorder often respond well to highly structured educational programs. Successful programs typically include a team of specialists and a variety of activities to improve social skills, communication and behavior. Preschool children who receive intensive, individualized behavioral interventions often show good progress.
- Family therapies. Parents and other family members can learn how to play and interact with their children in ways that promote social interaction skills, manage problem behaviors, and teach daily living skills and communication.
- Other therapies. Depending on your child's needs, speech therapy to improve communication skills, occupational therapy to teach activities of daily living, and physical therapy to improve movement and balance may be beneficial. A psychologist can recommend ways to address problem behavior.
- Medications. No medication can improve the core signs of autism spectrum disorder, but specific medications can help control symptoms. For example, certain medications may be prescribed if your child is hyperactive; antipsychotic drugs are sometimes used to treat severe behavioral problems; and antidepressants may be prescribed for anxiety. Keep all health care providers updated on any medications or supplements your child is taking. Some medications and supplements can interact, causing dangerous side effects.
Managing other medical and mental health conditions
In addition to autism spectrum disorder, children, teens and adults can also experience:
- Medical health issues. Children with autism spectrum disorder may also have medical issues, such as epilepsy, sleep disorders, limited food preferences or stomach problems. Ask your child's doctor how to best manage these conditions together.
- Problems with transition to adulthood. Teens and young adults with autism spectrum disorder may have difficulty understanding body changes. Also, social situations become increasingly complex in adolescence, and there may be less tolerance for individual differences. Behavior problems may be challenging during the teen years.
- Other mental health disorders. Teens and adults with autism spectrum disorder often experience other mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Your doctor, mental health professional, and community advocacy and service organizations can offer help.
Planning for the future
Children with autism spectrum disorder typically continue to learn and compensate for problems throughout life, but most will continue to require some level of support. Planning for your child's future opportunities, such as employment, college, living situation, independence and the services required for support can make this process smoother.
Because autism spectrum disorder can't be cured, many parents seek alternative or complementary therapies, but these treatments have little or no research to show that they're effective. You could, unintentionally, reinforce negative behaviors. And some alternative treatments are potentially dangerous.
Talk with your child's doctor about the scientific evidence of any therapy that you're considering for your child.
Examples of complementary and alternative therapies that may offer some benefit when used in combination with evidence-based treatments include:
- Creative therapies. Some parents choose to supplement educational and medical intervention with art therapy or music therapy, which focuses on reducing a child's sensitivity to touch or sound. These therapies may offer some benefit when used along with other treatments.
- Sensory-based therapies. These therapies are based on the unproven theory that people with autism spectrum disorder have a sensory processing disorder that causes problems tolerating or processing sensory information, such as touch, balance and hearing. Therapists use brushes, squeeze toys, trampolines and other materials to stimulate these senses. Research has not shown these therapies to be effective, but it's possible they may offer some benefit when used along with other treatments.
- Massage. While massage may be relaxing, there isn't enough evidence to determine if it improves symptoms of autism spectrum disorder.
- Pet or horse therapy. Pets can provide companionship and recreation, but more research is needed to determine whether interaction with animals improves symptoms of autism spectrum disorder.
Some complementary and alternative therapies may not be harmful, but there's no evidence that they're helpful. Some may also include significant financial cost and be difficult to implement. Examples of these therapies include:
- Special diets. There's no evidence that special diets are an effective treatment for autism spectrum disorder. And for growing children, restrictive diets can lead to nutritional deficiencies. If you decide to pursue a restrictive diet, work with a registered dietitian to create an appropriate meal plan for your child.
- Vitamin supplements and probiotics. Although not harmful when used in normal amounts, there is no evidence they are beneficial for autism spectrum disorder symptoms, and supplements can be expensive. Talk to your doctor about vitamins and other supplements and the appropriate dosage for your child.
- Acupuncture. This therapy has been used with the goal of improving autism spectrum disorder symptoms, but the effectiveness of acupuncture is not supported by research.
Some complementary and alternative treatments do not have evidence that they are beneficial and they're potentially dangerous. Examples of complementary and alternative treatments that are not recommended for autism spectrum disorder include:
- Chelation therapy. This treatment is said to remove mercury and other heavy metals from the body, but there's no known link with autism spectrum disorder. Chelation therapy for autism spectrum disorder is not supported by research evidence and can be very dangerous. In some cases, children treated with chelation therapy have died.
- Hyperbaric oxygen treatments. Hyperbaric oxygen is a treatment that involves breathing oxygen inside a pressurized chamber. This treatment has not been shown to be effective in treating autism spectrum disorder symptoms and is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for this use.
- Intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) infusions. There is no evidence that using IVIG infusions improves autism spectrum disorder, and the FDA has not approved immunoglobulin products for this use.