When autism was first identified, clinicians believed it was an emotional disorder caused by the cold, rejecting parenting style of so-called refrigerator mothers.
Today psychologists know that autism is a problem in the way the brain works, not in how people are raised. That discovery has led them to develop medical, educational and behavioral approaches to treatment.
Medication can help some children with autism, although no drug specifically targets the disorder.
Instead, clinicians use medication to help manage whatever symptoms are most troublesome. Medication can help minimize seizures or hyperactivity, for example.
Since medications on their own rarely improve behavior, behavioral interventions are crucial.
Many treatment programs emphasize "operant conditioning," which uses rewards to encourage good behavior and punishments to discourage bad behavior. This approach can help improve communication and social interaction and decrease troublesome behaviors like aggression or self-injury.
A similar approach is cognitive-behavioral therapy, which target thoughts as well as behaviors.
Social skills training can help children with autism improve their interpersonal functioning. In the classroom, for instance, peers without autism can help those who have the disorder by teaching and modeling appropriate social behavior.
Integration into regular classrooms is another important advance in the autism field, although some children benefit from inclusion more than others.