What Therapies, Besides Play Therapy, Also Help with Autism?

Medically Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD on March 14, 2021

A number of therapies can help people with autism improve their abilities and reduce their symptoms. Starting therapy early -- during preschool or before -- improves the chances for your child’s success, but it’s never too late for treatment.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends you start to research therapies as soon as you suspect your child has autism, rather than waiting for a formal diagnosis. It can take a lot of time, tests, and follow-ups with specialists to get a formal diagnosis.

What works varies from person to person. Get to know some of the most popular -- and proven -- therapies.

Occupational Therapy

This type of therapy helps with activities of daily living and the use of everyday objects, such as learning to button a shirt or hold a fork properly. But it can involve anything related to school, work or play. The focus depends on the child’s needs and goals.

Speech Therapy

This helps children with speaking, as well as communicating and interacting with others. It can involve non-verbal skills, like making eye contact, taking turns in a conversation, and using and understanding gestures. It might also teach kids to express themselves using picture symbols, sign language, or computers.

To be most effective, speech therapists need to work closely with parents and teachers to practice these skills in daily life.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

This type of therapy uses rewards to reinforce positive behaviors and teach new skills. Parents and other caregivers are trained so they can give the autistic child moment-by-moment feedback.

Treatment goals are based on the individual. They might include communication, social skills, personal care, and school work. Studies show children who receive early, intensive ABA can make big, lasting gains.

There are different types of ABA. They include:

  • Discrete Trial Training (DTT). This breaks a desired behavior into the simplest steps.
  • Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI). This form of ABA is designed for young children, usually under age five.
  • Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT). The focus here is on important areas of a child’s development, like self-management and taking charge in social situations.
  • Verbal Behavior Intervention (VBI). Improving a child’s verbal skills is the goal.

Social Skills Class

This is group or one-on-one instruction at home, in school, or in the community. The aim is to improve how a child interacts socially and forms bonds with others. This usually means learning through role playing or practice. Classes are often led by a therapist. Like ABA, parent training is key to helping a child improve their social skills.

Therapeutic Horseback Riding

Doctors also call this “hippotherapy.” Here, a child rides a horse under the guidance of a therapist. Riding is a form of physical therapy because the rider needs to react and adjust to the movements of the animal. Research shows it helps children from ages 5 to 16 improve their social and speaking skills. It can also help them to be less irritable and hyperactive.

Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)

This form of therapy teaches children to trade pictures for items or activities. The system is designed for those who don’t speak, can’t understand, or are difficult to understand. PECS may not work for kids who don’t try to communicate or aren’t interested in particular objects, activities or food. A review of research on PECS found that those who used it had some improvements in communication but little or no gains in speech.

WebMD Medical Reference



NIH: “What Are the Treatments for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?”

American Academy of Pediatrics: “Management of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.”

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association: “Autism (Autism Spectrum Disorder).”

Autism Speaks: “Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).”

CDC: “Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Treatment.”

Texas Education Agency: “Social Skills Training SST).”

Indiana Resource Center for Autism: “Successfully Using PECS with Children with ASD.”

US National Library of Medicine: “Effectiveness of the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) on Communication and Speech for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Meta-analysis.”

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