There is no one definitive treatment for autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Research shows that early diagnosis and interventions, such as during preschool or before, are more likely to have major positive effects on symptoms and later skills. Read more about early interventions for autism.
Because there can be overlap in symptoms between ASD and other disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). So it's important that treatment focus on a person's specific needs, rather than the diagnostic label.
Select the links for more information on each type of treatment for ASD.
Behavioral management therapy: Behavior management therapy tries to reinforce wanted behaviors and reduce unwanted behaviors. It also suggests what caregivers can do before, during, after, and between episodes of problem behaviors.
Cognitive behavior therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychological treatment that has been demonstrated to be effective for a range of problems including depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug use problems, marital problems, eating disorders, and severe mental illness. Numerous research studies suggest that CBT leads to significant improvement in functioning and quality of life. In many studies, CBT has been demonstrated to be as effective as, or more effective than, other forms of psychological therapy or psychiatric medications.
It is important to emphasize that advances in CBT have been made on the basis of both research and clinical practice. Indeed, CBT is an approach for which there is ample scientific evidence that the methods that have been developed actually produce change. In this manner, CBT differs from many other forms of psychological treatment. ( What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? (PDF, 244KB)opens in new window)
Joint attention therapy: Research shows that many people with autism have difficulty with joint attention, which is the ability to share focus on an object or area with another person. Examples of joint attention skills include following someone else's gaze or pointed finger to look at something.
Joint attention is important to communication and language learning. Joint attention therapy focuses on improving specific skills related to shared attention, such as:
Coordinating looks between a person and an object
Improvements from such treatments can last for years.
Nutritional therapy: For a variety of reasons, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may not get the nutrition they need for healthy growth and development.1,2,3,4 Some children with autism will only eat certain foods because of how the foods feel in their mouths. Other times, they might avoid eating foods because they associate them with stomach pain or discomfort. Some children are put on limited diets in hopes of reducing autism symptoms.
It is important that parents and caregivers work with a nutrition specialist—such as a registered dietitian—or health care provider to design a meal plan for a person with autism, especially if they want to try a limited diet. Such providers can help to make sure the child is still getting all the nutrients he or she needs to grow into a healthy adult, even while on the special diet.
For example, many children with ASD are on gluten-free or casein-free diets. (Glutenand casein are types of proteins found in wheat and milk products, respectively.) Available research data do not support the use of a casein-free diet, a gluten-free diet, or a combined gluten-free, casein-free diet as a primary treatment for individuals with ASD.5
Good Nutrition Is Important
Research shows that children with autism tend to have thinner bones than children without autism.6 Restricting access to bone-building foods, such as dairy products, can make it even harder for their bones to grow strong. Working with a health care provider can help ensure that children who are on special diets still get the bone-building and other nutrients they need.
Digestive Problems in ASD
Some people with autism also have digestive problems, such as constipation, abdominal (belly) pain, or vomiting. Some research7 suggests that digestive problems occur more often in people with autism than in people without autism, but research is still being done on this topic.5,7 Working with a health care provider can help ensure that a diet does not make digestive problems worse.
NICHD and other agencies and organizations will continue research to learn more about how children with autism grow and if they have specific nutritional needs.
Adams, J. B., Audhya, T., McDonough-Means, S., Rubin, R. A., Quig, D., Geis, E., et al. (2011). Nutritional and metabolic status of children with autism vs. neurotypical children, and the association with autism severity. Nutrition & Metabolism, 8(1), 34.
Arnold, G. L., Hyman, S. L., Mooney, R. A., & Kirby, R. S. (2003). Plasma amino acids profiles in children with autism: Potential risk of nutritional deficiencies. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 33(4), 449–454.
Zimmer, M. H., Hart, L. C., Manning-Courtney, P., Murray, D. S., Bing, N. M., & Summer, S. (2012). Food variety as a predictor of nutritional status among children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42(4), 549–556.
Herndon, A. C., DiGuiseppi, C., Johnson, S. L., Leiferman, J., & Reynolds, A. (2009). Does nutritional intake differ between children with autism spectrum disorders and children with typical development? Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39(2), 212–222.
Buie, T., Campbell, D. B., Fuchs, G. J. 3rd, Furuta, G. T., Levy, J., Vandewater, J., et al. (2010). Evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of gastrointestinal disorders in individuals with ASDs: A consensus report. Pediatrics, 125, S1–S18.
Hediger, M. L., England, L. J., Molloy, C. A., Yu, K. F., Manning-Courtney, P., & Mills, J. L. (2008). Reduced bone cortical thickness in boys with autism or autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38(5), 848–858.
Chaidez, V., Hansen, R. L., & Hertz-Picciotto, I. (2014). Gastrointestinal problems in children with autism, developmental delays or typical development. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44(5), 1117–1127.
What is ABA Therapy?
"Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a type of therapy that focuses on improving specific behaviors, such as social skills, communication, reading, and academics as well as adaptive learning skills, such as fine motor dexterity, hygiene, grooming, domestic capabilities, punctuality, and job competence.” According to Merrian-Webster the definition of behavior is "the way in which someone conducts oneself or behaves".
A study on human behavior has identified and revealed that 90% of the population can be classified into four basic personality types: Optimistic, Pessimistic, Trusting and Envious. However, the latter of the four types, Envious, is the most common, with 30% compared to 20% for each of the other groups. This is one of the main conclusions of a study recently published in the journal, Science Advances by researchers from Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, together with colleagues from the universities of Barcelona, Rovira i Virgili and Zaragoza. The study analyzed the responses of 541 volunteers to hundreds of social dilemmas, with options leading to collaboration or conflict with others, based on individual or collective interests.
Early Age Improvements
Studies have shown that Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy at an early age can lead children to an increase in communication skills, language skills, and social skills. In several studies, evidence shows that intense ABA Therapy can improve social skills and focus in a child. These skill improvements can decrease problem behaviors for children with an early diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Increases Helpful Behavior
ABA Therapy aims to increase helpful behaviors that are beneficial to learning and decrease undesired behaviors that could impact learning. It is an effective treatment used widely in the U.S. for children with ASD and related disorders. Through ABA, we treat behaviors in real-life situations and adapt our techniques to create change where it is needed.
Flexible to Each Individual Child
This treatment program is flexible by using research-based strategies for each individual child since no child is alike. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder have different symptoms, traits, and functioning levels. The program focuses on the child’s personal strengths and weaknesses. According to a study of intensive ABA therapy, within the first year of receiving ABA therapy treatment for 32-39 hours per week, there was a 48 percent success rate in a classroom setting.
Rewards Positive Behavior
ABA therapy can be applied in various settings to help teach the necessary skills of everyday life. This includes each child’s unique and specific needs, which are adjusted over time as their needs change. Communication skills, daily living skills, and social skills are areas of focus. ABA Therapy rewards positive behavior until a task or behavior becomes an unaided skill. Rewards are individualized to each child for effectiveness. For example, playing with a favorite toy, going to the playground, telling them verbal praise, etc. ABA Therapy services in-home or at the center with the same intensive therapy to lead to outstanding outcomes for your child.
If you have a question about treatment, talk to a health care provider who specializes in caring for people with ASD. These resources have more information about treatments for autism:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes some treatment options. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/treatment.html
The Autism Speaks organization offers a Family Services Resources guide. You can search the guide to find autism-related care and services in your area. http://www.autismspeaks.org/community/fsdb/search.php
The Applied Behavior Center for Autism has many therapy services for your child that are centered-based, home-based, community-based and more. https://www.appliedbehaviorcenter.org/testimonials
"We are committed to changing the lives of all ASD communities one song at a time."