Autism Therapies and Supports
The following information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as appropriate, with a qualified healthcare professional and/or behavioral therapist.
If you or your child has recently been diagnosed with autism, also see these Autism Speaks tool kits:
- 100 Day Kit for Families of Newly Diagnosed Young Children
- 100 Day Kit for Families of Newly Diagnosed School Age Children
- Is It Autism and If So, What Next? A Guide for Adults
Each child or adult with autism is unique. Treatments and supports that work for one may not work for another. As a result, each person’s treatment plan should follow a thorough evaluation of strengths as well as challenges.
Depending on their needs, children who have autism can receive a broad range of therapies. Typically, they include a combination of behavior therapy, speech-language therapy, occupational therapy, social skills training and sometimes feeding therapy. In addition, parents may receive training on how to work with their children at home. Ideally, parents, teachers and therapists will all work together to integrate their approaches across the child’s daily life.
Behavioral therapies are the foundation of treatment for most children on the autism spectrum. When behavioral therapies are not enough to curb harmful behaviors, the family may want to discuss other options, such as adding medication, with their child’s doctor. It’s crucial that this discussion – and the highly personal decision that results – include consideration of benefits balanced against side effects.
The therapies described above have the backing of research showing their effectiveness for people who have autism. Autism Speaks Canada encourages parents and adults to pursue treatments that are evidence based.
To learn more, also see these Autism Speaks ATN/AIR-P tool kits:
- An Introduction to Behavioural Health Treatments
- Applied Behaviour Analysis: A Parent’s Guide
- Autism: Should My Child Take Medicine for Challenging Behavior?
- Also see: Complementary treatments for autism
Early intervention for autism
Autism can be reliably diagnosed by age 2 – in some instances, as young as 18 months of age. Early diagnosis is important because research shows that high-quality early intervention can improve learning, social skills and daily function well into the school-age years, and likely across the lifespan.
Early intervention involves a child's entire family working closely with a team of professionals. In some early intervention programs, therapists come into the home to deliver services. This can include parent training, which involves the parent leading therapy sessions under the supervision of the therapist. Other programs deliver therapy in a specialized center, classroom or preschool.
Studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of several intensive early intervention programs based on the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). They include the Early Start Denver Model, Pivotal Response Therapy and JASPER(Joint Attention, Symbolic Play, Engagement and Regulation). These programs emphasize play-based interactions that encourage shared, or joint, attention and communication. Although these specific programs may not be available in your area, their principles can be integrated into your child’s program.
Your child’s early intervention program should also enlist the appropriate specialists needed to address any autism-related sensory, speech, language, feeding and motor issues. Such specialists include occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, physical therapists and others.
For more information on each of the above therapies, see How is autism treated? (from the 100 Day Tool Kit). Also see: How to access services for your child
Intervention for school-age children
Additional interventions and supports become appropriate as a child develops and acquires social and learning skills. As children with autism enter school, for example, they may benefit from targeted communication and social skills training, as well as specialized approaches to teaching. Federal law guarantees that these autism-related services be provided through a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).
To learn more, see The Individualized Education Program (IEP) Guide and Other Resources
Adolescents with autism can also benefit from transition services that promote a successful path toward independence and employment opportunities in adulthood.
To learn more, see the Autism Speaks Transition Tool Kit.
Therapies and supports for adults
Some adults with autism don’t want treatment, per se. They may embrace their differences, yet need certain accommodations, or supports, tailored to their personal challenges. Take, for example, the extreme sensitivities to certain sounds, smells or lights that are common among people with autism. Someone on the spectrum may need a classroom or workplace accommodation to ease these sensory issues.
Adults severely affected by autism may need more-extensive supports such as vocational services, home-based and community-based services. This is particularly true when someone with autism also has an intellectual disability, as is the case for around a third of people on the autism spectrum.
If you are an adult looking for treatment options, it’s particularly important to explore your strengths alongside your challenges. The more you understand your strengths and needs, the better you and your healthcare provider can tailor therapies and supports that help you achieve the life you want. This guidance is likewise appropriate for the parent or caregiver of an adult who needs assistance in setting up a supportive network of services.
For instance, many adults on the spectrum struggle with communication and social challenges that can interfere with obtaining or maintaining employment, establishing and fostering relationships and achieving independence and quality of life. This can result in social isolation, anxiety, depression and problems with emotional control.
As a result, many adults seek help from a social worker or other mental health professional who has experience working with adults on the spectrum. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is one practical, skill-building approach that has helped many people on the autism spectrum. It involves examining problematic beliefs and behaviors, and so, is best suited for those who can communicate through verbal or nonverbal means. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), though developed and studied primarily in children, also helps some adults on the autism spectrum. Many mental health clinics can provide referrals to social skills workshops and support groups for adults who have autism.
To learn more about CBT and ABA for adults, also see “How Is Autism Treated?” in Is It Autism and If So, What Next? A Guide for Adults
Whether or not an adult on the spectrum seeks treatment, he or she may want and need accommodations or supports for autism-related challenges. These challenges can include sensitivities to certain types of lighting, sounds and smells, as well as difficulty with social communication and/or unanticipated changes in routine. As with any disability, reasonable accommodations can help the adult with autism succeed in higher education, the workplace and the community.
Also see these Autism Speaks Canada resources: