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How Is Autism Treated?

Each child or adult with autism is unique and, so, each autism intervention plan should be tailored to address specific needs.

Intervention can involve behavioral treatments, medicines or both. Many persons with autism have additional medical conditions such as sleep disturbance, seizures and gastrointestinal (GI) distress. Addressing these conditions can improve attention, learning and related behaviors. (Learn more about Treatment of Autism’s Core Symptoms and Treatment of Associated Medical Conditions.)

Early intensive behavioral intervention involves a child's entire family, working closely with a team of professionals. In some early intervention programs, therapists come into the home to deliver services. This can include parent training with the parent leading therapy sessions under the supervision of the therapist. Other programs deliver therapy in a specialized center, classroom or preschool. (Learn more about Early Intervention.)

Typically, different interventions and supports become appropriate as a child develops and acquires social and learning skills. As children with autism enter school, for example, they may benefit from targeted social skills training and specialized approaches to teaching.

Adolescents with autism can benefit from transition services that promote a successful maturation into independence and employment opportunities of adulthood. (Learn more about Transition in our Transition Tool Kit.)

What Early Intervention Therapies Are Currently Available?

Objective scientific studies have confirmed the benefits of two methods of comprehensive behavioral early intervention. They are the Lovaas Model based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and the Early Start Denver Model. Parents and therapists also report success with other commonly used behavioral therapies, including Floortime, Pivotal Response Therapy and Verbal Behavior Therapy. For still more information, also see the “Treatment and Therapies” chapter of our 100 Day Kit

Treatment Options for Toddlers and Preschool Children

Scientific studies have demonstrated that early intensive behavioral intervention improves learning, communication and social skills in young children with autism. While the outcomes of early intervention vary, all children benefit. Researchers have developed a number of effective early intervention models. They vary in details, but all good early intervention programs share certain features. They include:

√ The child receives structured, therapeutic activities for at least 25 hours per week.

√ Highly trained therapists and/or teachers deliver the intervention. Well-trained paraprofessionals may assist with the intervention under the supervision of an experienced professional with expertise in autism therapy.

√ The therapy is guided by specific and well-defined learning objectives, and the child’s progress in meeting these objectives is regularly evaluated and recorded.

 The intervention focuses on the core areas affected by autism. These include social skills, language and communication, imitation, play skills, daily living and motor skills.

 The program provides the child with opportunities to interact with typically developing peers.

√ The program actively engages parents in the intervention, both in decision making and the delivery of treatment.

√ The therapists make clear their respect for the unique needs, values and perspectives of the child and his or her family.

 The program involves a multidisciplinary team that includes, as needed, a physician, speech-language pathologist and occupational therapist.

Do Children or Adults Diagnosed with Autism Ever Move Off "the Spectrum"? 

 Growing evidence suggests that a small minority of persons with autism progress to the point where they no longer meet the criteria for a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Various theories exist as to why this happens. They include the possibility of an initial misdiagnosis, the possibility that some children mature out of certain forms of autism and the possibility that successful treatment can, in some instances, produce outcomes that no longer meet the criteria for an autism diagnosis.

You may also hear about children diagnosed with autism who reach “best outcome” status. This means they have scored within normal ranges on tests for IQ, language, adaptive functioning, school placement and personality, but still have mild symptoms on some personality and diagnostic tests. 

 Some children who no longer meet the criteria for a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder are later diagnosed with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety disorder or a relatively high-functioning form of autism such as Asperger Syndrome. 

Currently, we don’t know what percentage of persons with autism will progress to the point where they “lose their diagnosis.” We likewise need further research to determine what genetic, physiological or developmental factors might predict who will achieve such outcomes.

We do know that significant improvement in autism symptoms is most often reported in connection with intensive early intervention—though at present, we cannot predict which children will have such responses to therapy. 

We also know that many people with autism go on to live independent and fulfilling lives, and that all deserve the opportunity to work productively, develop meaningful and fulfilling relationships and enjoy life. With better interventions and supports available, those affected by autism are having better outcomes in all spheres of life. 

For more information and resources, please see our Video Glossary and FAQs and special sections on SymptomsDiagnosis, Learn the SignsYour Child’s RightsAsperger Syndrome and PDD-NOS. We also offer a number of resource-packed tool kits for free download from our Family Services Tool Kits page and our Autism Treatment Network Tools You Can Use page). Our 100 Day Kit is for families who have a child recently diagnosed with autism. These resources are made possible through the generous support of our families, volunteers and other donors, as well as through grants administered by the National Institutes of Health.