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Types of Autism Therapy

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When a child is first diagnosed with autism, caregivers are immediately faced with making decisions about what therapies they should have their child participate in. This is no easy task! In today’s digital age, there is no shortage of blogs, testimonials, professionals and more claiming that any number of therapies helped or can help a person with autism. Because of the amount of information out there, it can be difficult for families to determine what therapies to choose. There are many factors that go into selecting the most appropriate therapies for your child and your family. The National Autism Center outlines the following factors to consider when selecting therapies for your family member:

  • evidence of intervention effectiveness
  • professional judgment and data-based clinical decision making
  • values and preferences of families (including the individual on the autism spectrum)
  • capacity to accurately implement an intervention

There are many great resources available to help families find therapies that can be appropriate and have good evidence of effectiveness. Unfortunately, families don’t always know where to find these resources. Autism Speaks and the Association for Science in Autism Treatment (ASAT) both have sections on their websites dedicated to providing information about the large number of therapies available for someone on the autism spectrum. Both organizations provide descriptions of the therapy and give information about the research support for the therapy model. The National Autism Center has also provided information about therapies with high levels of support for effectiveness through their National Standards Project.

Below we highlight several therapies available for children with autism at the Michael R. Boh Center for Child Development. While these therapies tend to produce improvements for many individuals on the spectrum, caregivers should keep in mind that it is very difficult to determine how much change or improvement any therapy will have for their child. When considering available therapies, it is important to consider the specific needs your child has and seek effective interventions to address those needs.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Applied behavior analysis focuses on how behaviors change and how learning takes place. The goal is to improve or establish skills that are beneficial for the individual and to reduce or eliminate behaviors that are harmful. This is done by determining how the environment and those around a person impacts or influences their behavior. A good ABA program should be tailored to fit the needs of each individual – there is no “one-size-fits-all” program. ABA treatment can help teach communication, play, self-care, work, social, academic and community living skills. ABA is also highly effective in working to reduce or eliminate harmful behaviors such as aggression, self-injury and destructive behavior. ABA has been shown to be effective for individuals of all ages and it is considered one of the gold-standard treatments for autism. There are many teaching procedures and specific programs available for people with autism that are based on or use strategies from ABA.

Speech Therapy

Speech therapy focuses on improving a child’s language and communication skills. It can work on improving or establishing verbal, nonverbal and social communication skills for a child with autism. It can also help improve how well a child understands what others say to them. The goal is to help a person improve their ability to communicate with and respond to others in meaningful and functional ways. The communication skills of people on the autism spectrum can vary significantly from person to person – from those who cannot speak to others who love to talk, but have difficulty having meaningful and social conversations with others. A good speech therapy program should be individualized to meet the needs of each person. For those who do not currently use their voice to speak, various alternative forms of communication might be considered such as sign language, picture exchange, tablet-based communication systems or voice output devices. Common goals of speech therapy might include strengthening the muscles of the mouth or jaw, improving vocal speech, improving the use and understanding of nonverbal communication such as body language or gestures, teaching someone to communicate through an alternative form of communication, working on clearer speech sounds or understanding and responding to things others say. Some speech language pathologists are also trained to help with feeding challenges a person with autism might experience.

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy helps people work on skills that can improve participation and independence in everyday activities. The focus is often on teaching cognitive, physical, social and motor skills needed to complete and participate in daily living activities. Occupational therapy programs for children with autism often work on play skills, strategies to help improve learning, self-help skills or strategies to help manage sensory issues. The goals of occupational therapy are usually geared toward developing or strengthening these skills to promote independence and participation in all areas of life. Common goals of occupational therapy might be improving fine motor skills, strengthening specific muscle groups, providing support for physical and cognitive changes or increasing tolerance to different sensory experiences. Some occupational therapists also receive specific training to help work on feeding and swallowing challenges that sometimes accompany an autism spectrum diagnosis.

It can be confusing and frustrating trying to navigate the world of autism therapies. One of the best things you can do is seek to learn not only what therapies have the most objective support for effectiveness, but also spend time learning how to determine for yourself what a good, evidence-based therapy looks like. Knowledge is power and when you arm yourself with this information, it will help to ensure you are seeking out therapies that have the best chances at success. By learning to determine what is an evidence-based therapy, you will be better able to figure out if new therapies are something you should consider. We all have limited resources – time, money, energy. When selecting an intervention for your family member with autism, it is usually a good idea to dedicate most of your resources to those therapies with a proven track record. Hopefully the resources provided are helpful as you begin or continue your journey.

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