Understanding Autism -- Diagnosis and Treatment

How Is Autism Diagnosed?

Because there aren't specific laboratory and imaging tests for autism, it's best to get a diagnosis from a physician or psychologist who specializes in developmental disabilities and has experience diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs).

The diagnosis of autism is made by taking into account the child's complete medical and behavioral history, lengthy observation of the child's behavior, and ruling out other problems that may cause some of the same symptoms. It is important to distinguish autism from other disorders, because a misdiagnosis may result in delayed, inappropriate, or ineffective treatment.

What Are the Treatments for Autism?

There is no known cure for autism, but there are well-established treatments that can improve symptoms. Many people with autism become more responsive as they come to better understand the world. Many experts agree that the prognosis for individuals with autism is often linked to their ability to communicate. Some children's symptoms may improve significantly or resolve altogether. The goals of treatment include:

  • Stopping inappropriate behaviors so the child can relate better to others.
  • Teaching the child to attend to purposeful activity. This can help the child succeed in educational settings.
  • Helping the child learn self-care skills.
  • Providing opportunities for the child to socialize with others.
  • Improving the child's communication skills.
  • Teaching parents how to provide helpful educational and social experiences for their child.

In most cases, treatment is provided in an individualized program that focuses on behavior modification and skills development. Treatment also may include medication to help control specific symptoms such as hyperactivity. Usually, a team of specialists -- a psychologist, a special education teacher, a speech therapist, an occupational therapist, a child development specialist, and trained aides -- is involved in treatment for an individual child.

In general, treatment programs tend to be more effective if they build on the child's unique interests, if they engage the child in highly structured activities according to a predictable schedule, and if they provide regular rewards for desired behavior. Also, the parents' involvement is very important to the educational and social development of autistic children.

The earlier treatment for autism begins, the better the child's chance of developing important skills. Early treatment can greatly help most children with autism. Treatment usually reduces symptoms of autism, regardless of the child's age or the severity of the condition.


There are many complementary and alternative therapies touted to help an autistic child. Because there is no cure for autism, many families turn away from traditional medicine. It is important that these therapies cause no harm. Discussing them with the child’s autism specialist is recommended.

In the U.S., the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees a free and appropriate public education for every child with a disability, including those with autism. Children under the age of 3 years who are at risk of having developmental delays may be eligible for services under IDEA. These services are provided through an early intervention system in your state. Through this system, you can also ask for an evaluation.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on May 31, 2016



Parker S., Zuckerman, B., and Augustyn M. (editors). Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics: A Handbook for Primary Care, Lippincott, 2005.

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