Treatment discoveries have made life with autism manageable.

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder. It was a commonly misunderstood diagnosis in its origins. In recent decades, the disorder has been studied and redefined as a condition of spectrums. This realization has revolutionized the treatments for the disorder and improved the quality of life for people who live with it. 

Like any other condition, autism is different for each person, though there are standard criteria that classify individuals with the condition. There are a variety of treatment modalities for autism disorder; some treatment types will be useful for one person and not another. It is crucial to obtain a proper assessment by a mental health professional or physician to determine the best treatment options for autism.

Medication for Autism Spectrum Disorder 

Medication cannot cure autism but can help treat or alleviate symptoms. Taking medication can be a difficult decision, particularly for people who are considering giving a child medicine for autism. Autism Speaks offers a helpful decision-making matrix to walk people through this process. Like any medical treatment, seek appropriate guidance from a doctor.

  • Antidepressants and autism: The specific delivery system of antidepressants isn’t designed for the treatment of autism, but can be a useful complementary treatment if someone has depressive symptoms or anxiety-based symptoms. 
  • Antipsychotics: The antipsychotic class of medications can be useful in reducing aggressive behaviors in those with autism. These medications, known as atypical antipsychotics, have a wide variety of uses, including aggression and affect regulation. 
  • Stimulants: For people on the autism spectrum who struggle with hyperactivity and impulsivity, stimulantscan be helpful medications. Stimulants influence hyperactivity in a counterintuitive way, as research on ADHD reveals. 
  • Anticonvulsant medicationsAutism spectrum disorder has also shown some response to anticonvulsant medications. While all of these medications treat other conditions, they can be useful in certain circumstances for people with autism.

Autism Spectrum Therapies

As autism therapy has been studied over the years, there has been more clarity around the types of behavioral strategies that are useful. A treatment that is helpful for one person may not help another, so it is good to be aware of many different options to find the best fit. 

  • Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA): Applied Behavioral Analysis is a common treatment for autism spectrum disorder. It offers a concrete structure and timeframe with specific behavioral outcomes. The ability to practice building new skills is one of the most useful elements of this type of treatment. Practicing new skills in a safe, therapeutic environment is often a useful approach for autism.
  • Relationship Development Intervention (RDI): Relationship Development Intervention offers specific guidance around improving interactional skills with other people. There are six areas of focus with RDI, and each skill enhances one’s ability to converse, respond and self-regulate while developing and maintaining relationships. 
  • Early Start Denver Model (ESDM): An evidence-based treatment model for autism is the Early Start Denver Model. This model is an in-home treatment modality that works through early intervention. The treatment works on managing early indicators of autism disorder through natural play and collaborating as a team with the child’s parents. 
  • Pivotal Response Treatment (PVI): An intuitive type of treatment, Pivotal Response Treatment utilizes a child’s natural inclination to play and works on developmental areas through organic motivation and reinforcement. This method has treated autism for decades. 
  • Treatment and Education of Autistic and Communication-Related Handicapped Children (TEACCH): The TEACCH method is a tool to help people with autism manage five common challenges including:
    • The physical structure of varying environments
    • Scheduling and related tasks
    • Learning work systems and expectations
    • Routine and visual structure
  • Lovaas Model: The Lovaas Model is a form of Applied Behavioral Analysis that focuses on children from 2 to 7 years old. Parents are an integral part of the treatment modality, and there is a major focus on positive reinforcement. The Lovaas Model for autism has been studied and utilized for about forty years and has been a useful tool to help with the treatment of autism spectrum disorder.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Cognitive behavioral therapy can be a helpful treatment modality, particularly for those with high-functioning forms of autism. The exploration of thought, emotion, behavior and learning strategies to cope with varying life stressors can be a useful and practical approach. 

Alternative Therapies

Treatments for autism are varied and also include options that may seem somewhat non-traditional. The use of these alternative therapies for autism should be used as judiciously as any other form of treatment, but are less invasive than some of the medicinal options and offer minimal risk. 

  • Occupational Therapy: It may seem surprising that occupational therapy (OT) could be a useful treatment strategy for autism spectrum disorder. There are many ways OT can help people with autism manage interactional skills. The specialized treatment style of occupational therapy can assess an individual’s need for space as well as determining motor skills and abilities. 
  • Sensory Integration Therapy: For people with autism, sensory challenges can feel overwhelming and may trigger a host of other problems. Sensory integration therapy helps people with autism break down specific tasks related to sensory input and helps build tolerance for sensory stimuli. Sensory integration helps those with autism to relearn those stimulating experiences involving sensory input, helping to rewire the brain effectively. 
  • Play Therapy: Children with autism can benefit from play therapy to practice skills that help with learning and reading social cues, as well as building expressive and receptive language skills. Play therapy has the additional benefit of building on the intrinsic motivation for play.
  • Speech Therapy: Autism is often suspected when there are developmental delays involving speech deficits. Speech therapy in the treatment of autism can greatly benefit children’s abilities to make their needs known and learn the expressive language. Building language and self-expression skills will likely reduce frustration and may additionally improve behaviors as a result. 
  • Music Therapy: Music is said to be the language that defies barriers. It is no surprise that the use of music therapy is beneficial to people with autism spectrum disorder. Music therapy has been used since the 1950s and is a simple strategy for building social collaboration and self-expression. A major benefit of music therapy is how helpful it is for people dealing with autism spectrum who may have a difficult time with verbal expression or managing social cues.

Treating Autism and Co-Occurring Disorders

Some other conditions can accompany autism. People with autism and co-occurring disorders may also deal with depressionanxiety or bipolar disorder. It is important for these additional diagnoses to be determined so that the right treatment options can be found. 

Autism awareness is increasing and improved treatments emerge as our cultural understanding increases. If you or a loved one has autism spectrum disorder, advocate for the types of treatments that could offer a better quality of life. 

If you or a loved one struggles with drug or alcohol abuse and autism, The Recovery Village can help. This treatment center provides dual-diagnosis treatment for these co-occurring disorders. Call today to learn more.

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Editor – Camille Renzoni
Cami Renzoni is a creative writer and editor for The Recovery Village. As an advocate for behavioral health, Cami is certified in mental health first aid and encourages people who face substance use disorders to ask for the help they deserve. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Paula Holmes, LCSW
Paula Holmes is a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist and freelance writer who lives and works in midcoast Maine. She received her master's degree in Social Work in 2008 from the University of Maine. Read more
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Scarpa, Angela and Reyes, Nuri. “Improving Emotion Regulation with CBT in[…]rders: A Pilot Study.”, April 4, 2011. Accessed February 28, 2019.

Arky, Beth. “Treating Sensory Processing Issues.” (n.d.) Accessed February 28, 2019. “Five Ways Speech Therapy Can Help Children With Autism.” May 16, 2015. Accessed February 28, 2019. “Music Therapy.”(n.d.) Accessed February 28, 2019.

US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. “Co-occurring psychiatric conditions in a[…]sm spectrum disorder.” April 23, 2018. Accessed February 28, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.