Therapies for Autism Spectrum Disorder

Because every child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has unique symptoms, each child should receive treatment that meets their specific needs. There are a variety of therapy options that have been shown to be successful for improving learning, communication, and social skills of children with ASD.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

This is one of the most widely accepted therapies for children with autism spectrum disorder. ABA training is most effective if therapy begins when children are younger than age 5, although older children with ASD can also benefit.

ABA helps teach social, motor, and verbal behaviors, as well as reasoning skills, and works to manage challenging behavior. It’s based on teaching these skills through observation and positive reinforcement.

To get the most benefit from applied behavior analysis, your child will need extensive one-on-one therapy for 20 to 40 hours each week. A drawback is that this type of intensive therapy is expensive.

ABA training is also most effective if you get training in it yourself. That way, you can teach your child and constantly reinforce positive behaviors. However, using it is very time-consuming and takes a lot of skill to get right.

But it will help your child generalize the skills he’s learned. It also will help lower the likelihood that your child will engage in unhealthy or negative behaviors.

Relationship Development Intervention (RDI)

RDI training is a relatively new, trademarked therapy for autism spectrum disorder. The developers of the treatment think RDI training is most effective when children start getting therapy at a young age, but it can be beneficial for people of all ages.

RDI training aims to teach children how to think flexibly and engage in social relationships with other people. Typically, RDI training begins by helping children develop relationships with their parents and other family members. It is very similar to other therapies for ASD in that it focuses on the disorder’s core deficit -- social skills and interaction.

Parents’ involvement is key to its success. Parents are taught how to use all opportunities as “teachable moments.” These moments are chances to engage your child and build more appropriate social skills.

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Since RDI training is relatively new, there isn’t much clinical evidence to show its effectiveness. However, studies conducted by its developers have shown significant improvement in children treated with RDI.

To provide your child with RDI training, you’ll need to devote time to workshops or watching videos to learn how to give your child an effective intervention program. This instruction for you can be both time-consuming and expensive.

You’ll also have to commit to regular communication with a certified RDI program consultant, which includes regularly videotaping interactions with your child.

Sensory Integration and Related Therapies

Many children with ASD have sensory problems. Some are overly sensitive to stimuli such as lights, noises, and touch. Others are not sensitive enough.

There are a number of therapies that have been successful at treating children with autism spectrum disorder. Although these therapies can help, there is no scientific documentation that sensory therapies are effective in treatingthe disorder.

Therapists skilled in conducting sensory therapy for ASD work one-on-one with a child. The goal is to help regulate the child’s reaction to external stimuli.

For example, if the child is hypersensitive to being touched, the therapist will work to desensitize the child over time. The therapist might firmly stroke the child's skin with different textured fabrics to get him accustomed to the sensations.

The therapist strives to make the activities enjoyable and game-like for the child. That way, sensory therapy does not become overwhelming for him. He’s not forced to do anything, but the therapist pushes his boundaries to help him improve.

Various sensory therapies can be used to address a variety of problems that affect children with ASD. For example, spinning in a chair can reduce hyperactivity in some children. Other sensory therapies may include swinging, vibration therapy, and aerobic exercise.

You and your child's therapist may need to experiment with a variety of therapeutic options to determine which ones help your child improve. Your developmental pediatrician or neurologist also can provide guidance.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Roy Benaroch, MD on November 18, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies: "Autism and ABA."

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development: "Autism Overview."

Association for Science in Autism Treatment: "Relationship Development Intervention."

Perceptual and Motor Skills: “A sensory integration therapy program on sensory problems for children with autism.”

Autism Speaks: “Relationship Development Intervention.”

Synapse: “Introduction to Applied Behavior Analysis.”

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