If you’re like most parents with a child on the spectrum, choosing the best possible intervention method for them might seem like an overwhelming task. Parents stuck in that position often feel uncertain and find themselves doubting whether they made a mistake somewhere along the way. And who can blame them? After all, even the most rigorously tested and proven methods accepted by the community at large might not be the best fit for their child. It’s also common for parents to be bombarded with tons of misinformation and lies about interventions that lack evidence-based support from scientific research.
As a special needs mom and a psychologist, I want to give you info about intervention methods that:
- Have been proven to be effective via scientific studies,
- Are currently being investigated and have received some support, and
- Methods that have not received support and can even harm your child.
Although there’s no single method that’s good for everyone, I hope you or someone you know will find this information helpful.
Tested and Proven Methods
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
ABA has been proved to be an effective way to treat autism by tens of respectable studies. This approach uses positive reinforcement to foster skills and takes away these reinforcers to decrease behaviors that are harmful to a person. ABA has been shown to improve, for example, intellectual functioning, language development, daily living skills, and social functioning in most people on the spectrum. In many countries, ABA is the only treatment for autism that is reimbursed by health insurance companies. Even so, ABA has also been on the receiving end of some criticism.
Developmental and Individual Differences Relationship Therapy (DIR, or Floortime)
DIR, or Floortime, was developed to make it easier for children on the spectrum to connect with others by using their interests and passions. This is a holistic approach that combines a child’s emotions, motor skills, and senses. Floortime can be modified to fit a child’s age and developmental level. As the child develops further, the approach becomes less play- and more conversation-based. Studies show that floortime increases emotional functioning, communication, and daily living skills in children with autism. DIR has also been linked to improved parent-child interactions. DIR practitioners say that Floortime intervention teaches an individual how to solve problems and adapt to the world instead of simply learning to do or say what others want.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Individuals with ASD are more susceptible to stress, anxiety, and depression than typically developing individuals. Many studies show that CBT is effective in treating these problems in individuals with autism. CBT is based on the idea that our thoughts and beliefs affect how we feel. How we feel, in turn, affects how we behave. This interplay between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors creates cycles. Reshaping one of the three influences the others. This is why CBT aims to replace negative thought patterns. Although CBT works best when given by a psychologist or other mental health professional, a high-functioning individual with ASD can also learn CBT principles via a workbook. CBT is not an ideal method for very young or non-verbal individuals since this intervention requires good communication skills.
Just like CBT, mindfulness methods have been successfully used to reduce stress and anxiety in individuals with ASD. It’s worth noting, however, that unlike CBT, mindfulness methods can also be used with young children in addition to teens and adults. It’s still important that understanding language is still a prerequisite with most mindfulness methods, but the lower barrier of entry to Mindfulness makes it appealing to many parents. Many mindfulness activities aim to help a person on the spectrum focus on their body and calming sensory stimuli instead of their anxious thoughts or provoking sensory stimuli like loud sounds. Although the use of mindfulness to help people with ASD has not been studied as extensively as ABA or CBT, the results of recent studies are very promising.
Although people with ASD are commonly treated using a wide range of medications, there are no medicines that directly treat the social and language impairments that are the hallmark of ASD. Some medications have been shown to effectively treat repetitive behaviors, hyperactivity, sleep problems, and mood disorders in individuals with ASD. If your child is experiencing particularly challenging problems and you’re exploring potential solutions, medication could be something to keep in mind. Still, you should be aware that medications often come with side effects.
Methods that Have Gained Some Support
Many methods have gained some support from scientific studies but haven’t reached levels where you should feel comfortable using them without serious thought and research. The approaches to treating ASD listed below still need further evidence and many are actively being studied. Still, it seems that these methods could be of use in addressing ASD while not harming them.
Some scientists believe that ASD symptoms may partially be attributed to biochemical errors that result from nutritional deficiencies. This hypothesis has led some to administer individuals with ASD certain supplements like magnesium as well as vitamins A, B6, and C. Studies have shown that these supplements reduce ASD symptoms in some individuals, but more well-controlled studies are needed before it can be said that any nutritional supplements are a form of evidence-based treatment for ASD. Also, some vitamins and minerals can be quite dangerous or even deadly if received in large quantities. That’s why parents should always consult a physician before giving any nutritional supplements, vitamins, or even herbs to their children.
Casein- and Gluten-Free Diet
Casein is a protein found in cow’s milk. Gluten is a protein found in such pants as barley, oats, and wheat. The inability to digest these proteins can cause gastrointestinal and neurological problems in severe cases. Some scientists believe that behavioral problems seen in ASD may partly be attributed to these issues and have recommend gluten- and casein-free diets to individuals with ASD. Before you go and drastically change your child’s diet, talk to your child’s doctor. Consider having your child tested for food allergies. Removing all gluten and casein from your child’s diet may cause vitamin deficiencies. If your child isn’t allergic to Casein or Gluten, you shouldn’t alter their diet in this way. Again, although some promising recent studies on the matter exist, we don’t have enough scientific evidence to call casein- and gluten-free diets evidence-based treatments for ASD.
Sensory Integration Therapy (SI)
Many individuals with ASD have hyper- or hyposensitivity to various sensory stimuli such as sounds and lights. This may cause behavioral problems or delays in motor-, speech-, or social development. Picky eating due to sensory issues is also quite common for people with ASD. Sensory Integration Therapy uses weighted vests, swings, etc. to help a child organize sensations. Notably, although SI may be helpful to some people on the spectrum, most scientists and the American Academy of Pediatrics do not consider SI to be an evidence-based treatment option for ASD. Still, no studies have reported this approach to be harmful so it might be worth trying.
Methods that are Not Recommended
Some methods have not only been found to be ineffective but even harmful to individuals on the spectrum. This list is not exhaustive, but it’s highly recommended that you don’t use:
- Chelation for Neurotoixity
- Holding Therapy
In conclusion, it’s safe to say that no single approach outshines the rest or that brings results to everyone on the spectrum. You may have to try different methods to get the best results with your child. Also, it’s possible to combine different methods such as using ABA techniques to teach basic skills and Floortime to train more advanced problem-solving skills.
Since every individual with ASD is different, the intervention methods used in treating ASD need to be tailored around the strengths and weaknesses of the individual. At Aris4Autism, this is one of our cornerstone beliefs. No two people with ASD are alike. So we combine approaches that have been scientifically proven to build 100% individualized intervention plans. We know this attention to the individual is what has brought us success with more than 99% of our clients.