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Treatment for Autism

The Importance of Using Scientific Evidence to Help Shape Practice

The great news? These days, there are many "treatments" out there. The not-so-great news? There are many "treatments" out there. One click on the internet and you will be faced with hundreds of treatment approaches for autism. The trick is to weed through the many different supposed treatments to find what works, and to find it sooner, rather than later. Here are some pointers to help you get started.

Explore, Then Narrow Down Your Options

Autism treatments can also be called therapies, interventions, methodologies, approaches, training or programs. Some interventions are considered "research-based" or those that have the most research supporting them, such as applied behavior analysis or ABA. Other interventions such as speech, occupational and physical therapy are sometimes used in conjunction with ABA. To begin ask lots of questions and get the information you are seeking.

  • Ask the specialist who diagnosed your child to recommend a treatment approach. When a treatment is recommended ask about research supporting the treatment as well as written information about the treatment.
  • Other parents can be helpful in learning about an intervention's effectiveness. Ask the specialist if she can refer you to other parents whose child has received the treatment.
  • Remember that you know your child best. Take the time to assess how recommended treatments may help your child's specific needs. For example, your child may need an intervention to help learn to eat a variety of foods. Or you may be seeking a treatment for a specific behavior of concern. Evaluate each intervention and determine if the intervention will have a broad impact on your child's development.

Strive for Quality and Quantity

When it comes to autism treatment, "Effective" and "Intensive" are essential.

  • Effective treatments produce real, measurable results. For example, extensive research has shown that interventions based on ABA can build language, social and academic skills in children with autism. ABA is also supported by more scientific research than any other treatment for autism. When you hear about a treatment, look for well-established programs that support it and see if scientific studies have been done to support the treatment.
  • Parent testimonials and anecdotal information are not research. You must base your final decision on facts and hard proof. Read the research and question the evidence.
  • For treatment to be most effective, it must be intensive. This means 25 to 40 hours a week of intervention. Research has proven that intensive early intervention can significantly improve the outcome for a child with ASD.
  • The National Research Council (NRC) recommends that a treatment plan include "a minimum of 25 hours per week, 12 months a year in which the child is engaged in systematically planned, and developmentally appropriate educational activity."

Start Treatment As Soon As Possible

The sooner your child gets help, the better.

  • Children with autism who receive early intensive behavioral treatment have been shown to make substantial gains in IQ, language, academic performance, social and adaptive behavior.
  • Even though children learn through their life span, a child's brain is most receptive to learning and shaping when the child is very young. Even if your child does not yet have an "official" diagnosis, you can begin to start teaching skills and reducing behavior. The earlier you start treatment the faster you will see results.

Stay Active & Involved

You can and should play an active role in your child's treatment, even after you put the right specialists in place. After all, you are your child's first and best teacher.

  • Make sure the treatments you choose encourage parental involvement. Remember, you're striving for intervention that's "intensive." Anything you can do on your own to support what your child learns during treatment will help your child's progress.
  • Find out how you and your family can practice new skills with your child both at home and in the outside world (generalization). According to the NRC, families should play a big part in teaching children with autsim. Choose treatment providers that agree.
  • Ask for training. Treatment providers should be willing and able to train you and your family members to implement and support treatment.

Know What to Ask

Here are questions that can help you narrow things down in your search for an effective treatment:

  • Is there research supporting this intervention? There are many supposed treatments for autism. Ask for and determine if there is research backing up the intervention. Parent testimony alone does not mean the treatment is well researched or that it will help your child.
  • What should I expect to see as a result of the intervention? Ask the treatment provider what skills will be increased (e.g., language and social skills) as a result of the intervention. Some interventions may only claim to address specific skills (e.g., speech development) but not others (e.g., the intervention will not help you manage behavior). Choose interventions that will address a range of your child's challenges.
  • How is progress measured? Your child's progress should be measured and evaluated on an ongoing basis to make sure the treatment is working, and to make changes as your child's needs change.
  • How much will this cost? Treatment expenses can easily add up. Find out which treatments will have the greatest impact on your child and focus on those that are supported by research. Some alternative treatments will be very costly with little research supporting their effectiveness. Find out if the treatment is covered by your health insurance, and what services can be provided at no cost by your state or local school district. If you have to pay for treatment out-of pocket, figure out your long-term costs before you begin the treatment.
  • Will this complement my child's other treatments? There are different "approaches" to treating autism - some work well together and others may not. Make sure all the specialists who work with your child are in agreement about the goals and intervention strategies. Conflicting philosophies can hinder your child's progress.
  • Will I be able to be involved in the treatment? You are your child's most important teacher. The intervention provider should actively involve you by providing you with training or support in implementing intervention within the home and community.
  • Will it work for my lifestyle?If you're a stay-at-home parent or have a full-time caretaker, a home treatment program may be an option. But if you work outside the home or have other young children requiring attention, then a home program may be more challenging. In this case, a school program may be a better option. Don't forget to factor in transportation to and from therapies and coordinating schedules with your other children.
  • Is this school or treatment center the right place for my child? If you are looking at a special school or center-based program, visit the program and observe to see if there are other children like your child. Find out what interventions and methods the school uses (i.e., do they use ABA? Do they also have speech and occupational therapists?). Ask similar questions about how results will be measured and how they will involve you and your family into treatment. If your son has specific behavioral needs (e.g., self-injury) ask if they have children like your son at their school and how they approach intervention. Ask about their training program for their staff, and if they have certified behavior analysts with expertise in working with children with autism.





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