Guide to Autism Treatment: The Best Options in 2021

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You've discovered that you or someone you love has autism. What forms of autism treatment work best?

The answer to this important question varies from person to person. Just as you are a unique individual with your own hopes, dreams, and vulnerabilities, so is your disorder. The ideal autism treatment program will be structured around you as an individual, rather than determined by what helped other people.

Many people with autism have co-occurring medical conditions, such as sleep disorders or seizures. Your treatment plan should include care for those very real concerns.

In this guide, we'll focus on therapies to help you address symptoms specific to autism. We'll discuss:

  • Medication management.
  • Physical therapy.
  • Speech therapy.
  • Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy.

We’ll also touch on where therapies are delivered and how much they cost. If you're already participating in an autism therapy program, remember to talk with your doctor before you change anything. But this guide should give you plenty to think about as you assess how autism might touch your life.

The Role of Medications in Autism Treatment

When we think about treatments for chronic medical conditions, we often imagine pills and tablets tucked away in medicine cabinets. Pharmaceuticals often ease distress and amend conditions that cause diseases to thrive. They are important in the treatment of many conditions, but their role in autism care is less clear-cut.

Researchers say about 58% of children diagnosed with autism get some kind of pharmaceutical therapy. Most get only one type of pill.

Medications are often used to quell troublesome behaviors. Medication options include:

  • Stimulants. Hyperactivity, short attention span, and impulsivity are target behaviors.
  • Alpha agonists. Sleep problems, tics, impulsive behaviors, short attention span, and hyperactivity are the focus of these medications.
  • Anti-anxiety drugs. Feelings of anxiety and depression are treatment targets, but the medications can also address repetitive thoughts or behaviors.
  • Antipsychotics. These medications treat a variety of issues, including irritability, aggression, tantrums, sleep problems, and more.

Experts explain that any medication that can alter behavior can also spark side effects. Sometimes, side effects are more severe and troubling than the issue the medication is meant to address.

Consider medications a last resort for autism treatment. Families that have tried all other forms of care with no meaningful change may benefit from investing in medication management. However, this type of treatment shouldn't be the first solution you try.

When used in concert with other therapies, and when applied judiciously, medications may help people with autism make significant improvements. Doctors recommend that drugs shouldn't be your first or only form of care.

Does Physical Therapy Help?

Movement disorders are common in people with autism. Physical therapists specialize in designing and administering programs to help people amend these issues. For some families, physical therapy is a worthy intervention.

Common movement issues associated with autism include:

  • Developmental delays. Children may walk, jump, or skip later than their peers. They may be slow to learn how to draw, brush their teeth, or button a shirt.
  • Coordination deficits. They may trip or stumble while walking. They may have poor balance. Tasks involving eye-hand coordination may also be challenging.
  • Poor planning. They may be unable to repeat movements shown by others or copy the movements of peers. They may also be unable to repeat movements in a specified order.

Assessments begin a physical therapy relationship. Experts determine present and missing skills, and they develop a program accordingly. Therapists are required to document progress, and families can use those notes to determine whether or not the intervention is working.

Does Speech Therapy Help?

Everyone with autism has something to say. Sometimes, the disorder impedes clear communication.

People with autism may:

  • Pause. After hearing a question, they may need time to parse the details and formulate a response.
  • Sound unusual. Their voices might seem high, rushed, or breathy.
  • Repeat. Some people with autism mimic the words and sounds they've just heard.
  • Stay silent. While people with autism may not always understand nonverbal communication, some don't speak with their voices at all.

Speech therapists work to meet their clients where they are, and they attempt to lower communication barriers. Even a skilled therapist may be unable to help a nonverbal person speak again, but this professional may teach a client to use sign language, picture cards, or other tools.

Speech therapists may also help people to:

  • Use clear speech sounds.
  • Match facial expressions and emotions.
  • Respond to questions.
  • Amend tone of voice.

Speech therapy results are often easy to see and assess. Families don't need to access medical records to determine if the therapy is working. Since the skills are complex, it can take time for changes to appear.

ABA Therapy: Autism’s Gold Standard

So far, this article has discussed therapies that touch on one small part of autism. ABA therapy is different. Families can use this form of treatment to address many autism challenges all at the same time.

Therapists have used ABA therapy since the 1960s to address common autism issues. These programs can:

  • Boost communication skills.
  • Improve focus and attention.
  • Build social skills.
  • Improve academic performance.
  • Reduce problem behaviors.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers ABA a "notable treatment approach" for people with autism. Several types of therapy exist, including:

  • Discrete trial training. Tasks break down into small parts, which are repeated for mastery.
  • Early intensive behavioral intervention. This is a structured approach to build positive behaviors while lowering their negative counterparts. This form of ABA is for very young children.
  • Early Start Denver Model. Therapists use play to help children develop social and language skills.
  • Pivotal response training. Enhanced motivation to learn is the aim of this form of therapy.
  • Verbal behavior intervention. Boosting verbal skills is the goal of this therapy.

All forms of ABA capitalize on a person's strengths and limitations. Sessions are made with pleasure in mind. Therapists work to find an action that the client finds rewarding, and that's used to entice wanted behaviors.

For example, a therapist discusses water glasses at dinner. The child loves to pour water and is resistant to begin eating. The therapist uses the pouring of water as a reward for eating a bite.

ABA therapists must also demonstrate success. They write up therapy plans with goals, and they mark their progress in meeting or missing those benchmarks. Families can request the notes to determine if the therapy is working.

Applied behavior analysis is an appropriate therapy for people all along the autism spectrum, including people who are nonverbal. Therapy may not eliminate certain autism symptoms, but it can lessen them. For example, a child that stims for self-control may always do so, but therapists can alter the frequency and tone of the actions. The child may choose to stim with flapping hands rather than head-banging, for example.

Where Do People With Autism Get Treatment?

People with autism keep plenty of appointments that happen outside the home. They head to doctors’ offices for medical checks, and sometimes, they visit a therapist's office to do yet more work. Sometimes, autism treatments happen in unexpected places.

The Autism Society explains that some children get autism treatment at school. Per the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, students are guaranteed an appropriate education with supports and accommodations. Sometimes, that means connections with therapists and autism experts.

Some people also get care at home. Researchers say that 44% of home-based programs involve social skills training, and 42% involve behavior management.

Cost of Autism Treatment

Therapies for autism often come with a price tag, and sometimes, families struggle to cover those costs. Helpful options exist, but you may need to dig to find them.

Common solutions families consider include:

  • Schools. Families of school-age children with autism may believe that the school district will cover the entire cost of care. Unfortunately, schools aren't required to provide an optimal learning environment. Instead, they're only expected to give your child an appropriate education. The gap between what your child needs and what the school will pay for may be large, and that could lead to a bill you must pay.
  • Insurance. Depending on your insurance plan setup, you could get a lot of relief for the care your child needs. But researchers say people with autism go to primary care doctors, mental health providers, and laboratories much more than their neurotypical counterparts. If each visit comes with a copayment, costs can add up quickly. Shopping for a plan with low copayments and deductibles might save families money. It’s also worth your time to learn how to maximize your insurance coverage. Many autism organizations, like Autism Speaks, can help you learn how to do this.
  • Cooperative care. Non-medical costs can get high for families touched by autism, experts say. Your bills for daycare, education, and residential placements can add up quickly. Some families address this by asking all family members to step back from work, so they can spread out the care among everyone. Due to reduced income levels, this approach also comes at a price.

Despite these steps, some families struggle to make ends meet. Treatment costs can be steep, and it’s not always easy to find the money to pay for them.

Is Treatment Worth It?

Crafting a family budget requires time, patience, and balance. Sometimes, when the numbers don’t seem to line up, families are tempted to cut corners and scale back on therapy.

Some families feel that it’s a reasonable decision to consider. Most autism therapies can't completely amend the disorder. It's chronic, so it never really goes away. But it's important to remember that autism treatment can dramatically improve quality of life, so much so that many children can go on to learn in standard classroom environments.

Researchers say about 30% of children with autism get no treatment at all, and they're missing out on opportunities to learn, grow, and expand. They can use the skills they learn in therapy later in life to find jobs, make friends, and develop an independent life. Without an investment in therapy, those achievements are harder to manifest.

Researchers say a delay in an autism diagnosis can cost families later on. They must spend more on therapies later, and they tend to miss work more often and let critical opportunities pass them by. Therapy later in life is less likely to be as effective, and it’s more likely to take longer to see results.

Studies like this prove that treatment is well worth the investment. Though it’s not easy work, families could help a loved one achieve a much better future.

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