Even if your child hasn’t officially been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, they may still benefit from certain treatments. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) makes those treatments possible for children under age 3 who may be at risk for developmental problems.
The type of treatment your child receives for autism spectrum disorder depends on their individual needs. Because ASD is a spectrum disorder (meaning some children have mild symptoms and others have severe symptoms) and each child who has it is unique, there are a variety of treatments.
They can include different kinds of therapies to improve speech and behavior, and sometimes medications to help manage any medical conditions related to autism.
The treatments your child can benefit from most depend on their situation and needs, but the goal is the same: to reduce their symptoms and improve their learning and development.
Behavior and Communication Treatments
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). ABA is often used in schools and clinics to help your child learn positive behaviors and reduce negative ones. This approach can be used to improve a wide range of skills, and there are different types for different situations, including:
Discrete trial training (DTT) uses simple lessons and positive reinforcement.
Pivotal response training (PRT) helps develop motivation to learn and communicate.
Early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI) is best for children under age 5.
Verbal behavior intervention (VBI) focuses on language skills.
Developmental, Individual Differences, Relationship-Based Approach (DIR). This kind of treatment is better known as Floortime. That’s because it involves you getting on the floor with your child to play and do the activities they like.
Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication-handicapped Children (TEACCH). This treatment uses visual cues such as picture cards to help your child learn everyday skills like getting dressed. Information is broken down into small steps so they can learn it more easily.
The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). This is another visual-based treatment, but it uses symbols instead of picture cards. Your child learns to ask questions and communicate through special symbols.
Occupational Therapy. This kind of treatment helps your child learn life skills like feeding and dressing themselves, bathing, and understanding how to relate to other people. The skills they learn are meant to help them live as independently as they can.
Sensory Integration Therapy. If your child is easily upset by things like bright lights, certain sounds, or the feeling of being touched, this therapy can help them learn to deal with that kind of sensory information.
There is no cure for autism spectrum disorder, and there’s currently no medication to treat it. But some medicines can help with related symptoms like depression, seizures, insomnia, and trouble focusing.
Studies have shown that medication is most effective when it’s combined with behavioral therapies.
Risperidone (Risperdal) is the only drug approved by the FDA for children with autism spectrum disorder. It can be prescribed for children between 5 and 16 years old to help with irritability.
Some doctors will prescribe other drugs in certain cases, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), anti-anxiety medications, or stimulants, but they’re not FDA-approved for autism spectrum disorder.
Talk with your child’s doctor about whether there are medicines that treat their symptoms.
Experts don’t recommend any specific diets for children with autism spectrum disorder, but getting proper nutrition is important. Sometimes kids with ASD restrict their food or parents try eliminating things like gluten to see if it helps symptoms improve.
However, there is no research that has proven that removing gluten or casein (proteins in wheat and milk products) from their diet is a helpful treatment for ASD, and limiting foods like dairy can prevent proper bone development.
Kids with autism spectrum disorder tend to have thinner bones than kids without it, so bone-building foods are important. You might want to work with a nutritionist or registered dietitian to develop a healthy eating plan.
Parents with a solid co-parenting relationship are less stressed and more hopeful.
Parents, in general, are under a significant amount of pressure during the coronavirus pandemic. Those who have been able to switch to long-term remote work arrangements are simultaneously helping their children stay engaged with online learning while schools remain closed, and some are also caring for aging parents or children with special needs.
For parents of children with autism, a new study finds that they’re facing a high degree of stress because of the isolation, disruption of children’s therapy services and respite care, and worry about finances and the risk of illness for their children and themselves.
What can parents do to alleviate stress during a time when public health guidance requires physical distancing? Research suggests that co-parenting—when two or more adults (parents, grandparents, family members, friends) work together to share caregiving responsibilities—can be an important source of support for parents of children with autism. This is true in “normal” times, but particularly now when many families are hunkered down at home with only each other to lean on.
In a 2015 study, over 150 mothers and fathers of children with autism in Australia completed questionnaires about several aspects of their parenting experience. They rated their co-parenting—how well they communicated and worked as a team, and how much they respected their partner’s caregiving commitment and judgment. Parents also answered questions about their stress and their confidence in their parenting role.
The findings? Parents who had better co-parenting relationships also tended to have less parenting stress. “The most important source of parenting support for many parents is the support they receive from their parenting partnership,” explain researcher Chris May and his colleagues. Parents of children with autism may feel more isolated from friends and family, which makes co-parenting support from partners even more significant.
In a 2017 study, May and his colleagues explored why a sense of confidence and competence in your co-parenting might be helpful. To capture a range of perspectives, they interviewed 11 cohabiting couples—mothers and fathers—who reported experiencing either relatively low or high stress.
The researchers explored how parents adapted as they started to understand that their child had autism, how they experienced a sense of partnership in their parenting, and how they expected their partnership would influence their child’s development. For example, they asked parents questions like “How important is your parenting relationship with [your partner] likely to be in determining [your child’s] progress?,” “How do you keep your parenting relationship working?,” and “Has anybody ever talked to you about parenting teamwork in relation to parenting a child with [autism]?”
The study found that parents who felt greater confidence in their co-parenting tended to be better able to cope with learning of their child’s diagnosis, have stronger motivation to do what they could for their child, and have greater hope for their child’s development.
“A sense of solidarity was experienced by parents when they felt they were on a ‘shared journey’ that involved appreciation, camaraderie, and compromise,” explain May and his colleagues. “This sense of ‘both trying to head in the same direction’ was an important factor in . . . linking a sense of purpose and shared direction to their ability to keep their relationship working.”
How to strengthen your co-parenting
How can parents of children with autism strengthen their co-parenting relationship? Psychologist Linda Raffaele Mendez and her colleagues designed a co-parenting training program that aimed to promote resilience in families of children with autism. In a recent study, they evaluated their four-week Together We Are Stronger group program with seven couples in the United States. According to their preliminary findings, parents who participated in the program had more cohesion in their relationship, better co-parenting, and more hope at the end of the program compared to the start.
Here are some recommendations from the program to help parents be stronger together.
1. Reflect on your family history and values. Co-parents can work together to think about what exactly your family values are and how they are tied to your personal and family history. Once you’ve identified your shared values, you can become better aware of what you want to instill in your children and how you will work together to do that. This reflection can consider your children’s special needs so you can adapt your approach for your children to best embrace these values.
For example, for families who value experiencing shared joy and laughter, you may reflect on what delights each family member and how you savor, mark, and remember these moments together. For families who value love, you can reflect on how receiving love at different times, in different ways, and from different people has sustained you. You can also think together about how each of your different expressions of love grow in widening circles—for self, family, pets, friends, teachers, therapists, neighbors, community, humanity, and nature.
You can also create a family time capsule with mementos and symbols of your most cherished values that will maintain the connection between you and your future family members. With a clear understanding of these values, co-parents can write a family mission statement as a way of summarizing this reflection and discussion.
2. Talk it out. Co-parents can practice actively listening for better communication and teamwork. You can look for opportunities to use confirmation communication, which can help your co-parent feel more valued. This includes saying something accepting or positive to your co-parent, like “That was really brave of you,” or asking for more information so that you can understand their thoughts, feelings, or behavior better.
You can also try to avoid disconfirmation communication, which can make your co-parent feel devalued. For example, replying to them by dismissing, interrupting, ignoring, or saying something irrelevant or tangential can communicate rejection.
Co-parents can practice using “I” statements to communicate your personal needs. “I” statements are a tool to help make clear that you are expressing your perspective rather than blaming your partner. “You” statements like “You don’t help me take care of stuff around the house” can lead to defensiveness. In comparison, “I” statements like “I feel frustrated when I can’t get my work done, because I’m taking care of all these household chores” can help show that you’re owning your feelings and set the stage for collaborative problem solving.
Practice planning for and having uninterrupted “check in” times, which last 10–20 minutes every day. Prepare an activity for your children during that time to minimize distractions.
3. Be there for each other. Recognize that working together as a team can reduce your overall stress. Share with each other what increases your stress levels, talk about what you need from one another, and make a plan to help reduce each other’s stress. For example, write down something that your co-parent could help you with and put it on the refrigerator. Simply doing one thing your partner needs can go a long way in helping them manage stress.
4. Use optimism and humor. Notice the tone of your thoughts on a weekly basis. Do they tend to be more optimistic or pessimistic? During your check-in times, talk to each other about how you might shift your perspectives if they tend to be more pessimistic. Invite your co-parent to help you find ways to do that. Also, recognize how humor can help relieve stress. When was the last time you laughed together or made light of a difficult situation?
Of course, parenting children with autism comes with many gifts in addition to these challenges. Parents can have many positive experiences related to caregiving, like a growth in their appreciation for family and family closeness, appreciation for new opportunities and knowledge-building, and understanding about differences, abilities, diversity, and community. It’s not surprising that parents of children with autism who feel less stress tend to have more positive parenting experiences.
When parents practice strengthening their co-parenting relationship, the positive effects can cascade over to all members of the family, including their children.
There are many things you can do to help a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) overcome their challenges. These parenting tips, treatments, and services can help.
A parent’s guide to autism treatment and support
If you’ve recently learned that your child has or might have autism spectrum disorder, you’re probably wondering and worrying about what comes next. No parent is ever prepared to hear that a child is anything other than happy and healthy, and an ASD diagnosis can be particularly frightening. You may be unsure about how to best help your child, or confused by conflicting treatment advice. Or you may have been told that ASD is an incurable, lifelong condition, leaving you concerned that nothing you do will make a difference.
While it is true that ASD is not something a person simply “grows out of,” there are many treatments that can help children acquire new skills and overcome a wide variety of developmental challenges. From free government services to in-home behavioral therapy and school-based programs, assistance is available to meet your child’s special needs and help them learn, grow, and thrive in life.
When you’re looking after a child with ASD, it’s also important to take care of yourself. Being emotionally strong allows you to be the best parent you can be to your child in need. These parenting tips can help by making life with an autistic child easier.
Don’t wait for a diagnosis
As the parent of a child with ASD or related developmental delays, the best thing you can do is to start treatment right away. Seek help as soon as you suspect something’s wrong. Don’t wait to see if your child will catch up later or outgrow the problem. Don’t even wait for an official diagnosis. The earlier children with autism spectrum disorder get help, the greater their chance of treatment success. Early intervention is the most effective way to speed up your child’s development and reduce the symptoms of autism over the lifespan.
Helping your child with autism thrive tip 1: Provide structure and safety
Learning all you can about autism and getting involved in treatment will go a long way toward helping your child. Additionally, the following tips will make daily home life easier for both you and your child with ASD:
Be consistent. Children with ASD have a hard time applying what they’ve learned in one setting (such as the therapist’s office or school) to others, including the home. For example, your child may use sign language at school to communicate, but never think to do so at home. Creating consistency in your child’s environment is the best way to reinforce learning. Find out what your child’s therapists are doing and continue their techniques at home. Explore the possibility of having therapy take place in more than one place in order to encourage your child to transfer what he or she has learned from one environment to another. It’s also important to be consistent in the way you interact with your child and deal with challenging behaviors.
Stick to a schedule. Children with ASD tend to do best when they have a highly structured schedule or routine. Again, this goes back to the consistency they both need and crave. Set up a schedule for your child, with regular times for meals, therapy, school, and bedtime. Try to keep disruptions to this routine to a minimum. If there is an unavoidable schedule change, prepare your child for it in advance.
Reward good behavior. Positive reinforcement can go a long way with children with ASD, so make an effort to “catch them doing something good.” Praise them when they act appropriately or learn a new skill, being very specific about what behavior they’re being praised for. Also look for other ways to reward them for good behavior, such as giving them a sticker or letting them play with a favorite toy.
Create a home safety zone. Carve out a private space in your home where your child can relax, feel secure, and be safe. This will involve organizing and setting boundaries in ways your child can understand. Visual cues can be helpful (colored tape marking areas that are off-limits, labeling items in the house with pictures). You may also need to safety proof the house, particularly if your child is prone to tantrums or other self-injurious behaviors.
Tip 2: Find nonverbal ways to connect
Connecting with a child with ASD can be challenging, but you don’t need to talk—or even touch—in order to communicate and bond. You communicate by the way you look at your child, by the tone of your voice, your body language – and possibly the way you touch your child. Your child is also communicating with you, even if he or she never speaks. You just need to learn the language.
Look for nonverbal cues. If you are observant and aware, you can learn to pick up on the nonverbal cues that children with ASD use to communicate. Pay attention to the kinds of sounds they make, their facial expressions, and the gestures they use when they’re tired, hungry, or want something.
Figure out the motivation behind the tantrum. It’s only natural to feel upset when you are misunderstood or ignored, and it’s no different for children with ASD. When children with ASD act out, it’s often because you’re not picking up on their nonverbal cues. Throwing a tantrum is their way of communicating their frustration and getting your attention.
Make time for fun. A child coping with ASD is still a child. For both children with ASD and their parents, there needs to be more to life than therapy. Schedule playtime when your child is most alert and awake. Figure out ways to have fun together by thinking about the things that make your child smile, laugh, and come out of her/his shell. Your child is likely to enjoy these activities most if they don’t seem therapeutic or educational. There are tremendous benefits that result from your enjoyment of your child’s company and from your child’s enjoyment of spending unpressured time with you. Play is an essential part of learning for all children and shouldn’t feel like work.
Pay attention to your child’s sensory sensitivities. Many children with ASD are hypersensitive to light, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Some children with autism are “under-sensitive” to sensory stimuli. Figure out what sights, sounds, smells, movements, and tactile sensations trigger your kid’s “bad” or disruptive behaviors and what elicits a positive response. What does your child find stressful? Calming? Uncomfortable? Enjoyable? If you understand what affects your child, you’ll be better at troubleshooting problems, preventing situations that cause difficulties, and creating successful experiences.
Tip 3: Create a personalized autism treatment plan
With so many different treatments available, it can be tough to figure out which approach is right for your child. Making things more complicated, you may hear different or even conflicting recommendations from parents, teachers, and doctors.
When putting together a treatment plan for your child, keep in mind that there is no single treatment that works for everyone. Each person on the autism spectrum is unique, with different strengths and weaknesses.
Your child’s treatment should be tailored according to their individual needs. You know your child best, so it’s up to you to make sure those needs are being met. You can do that by asking yourself the following questions:
What are my child’s strengths – and their weaknesses?
What behaviors are causing the most problems? What important skills is my child lacking?
How does my child learn best – through seeing, listening, or doing?
What does my child enjoy – and how can those activities be used in the treatment and to bolster learning?
Finally, keep in mind that no matter what treatment plan is chosen, your involvement is vital to success. You can help your child get the most out of treatment by working hand-in-hand with the treatment team and following through with the therapy at home. (This is why your well-being is essential!)
A good treatment plan will:
Build on your child’s interests.
Offer a predictable schedule.
Teach tasks as a series of simple steps.
Actively engage your child’s attention in highly structured activities.
Provide regular reinforcement of behavior.
Involve the parents.
Choosing autism treatments
There are many different options and approaches to ASD treatment, including behavior therapy, speech-language therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and nutritional therapy.
While you don’t have to limit your child to just one treatment at a time, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to address everything at once. Instead, start by focusing on your child’s most severe symptoms and pressing needs.
Caring for a child with ASD can demand a lot of energy and time. There may be days when you feel overwhelmed, stressed, or discouraged. Parenting isn’t ever easy, and raising a child with special needs is even more challenging. In order to be the best parent you can be, it’s essential that you take care of yourself.
Don’t try to do everything on your own. You don’t have to! There are many places that families of children with ASD can turn to for advice, a helping hand, advocacy, and support:
ADS support groups – Joining an ASD support group is a great way to meet other families dealing with the same challenges you are. Parents can share information, get advice, and lean on each other for emotional support. Just being around others in the same boat and sharing their experience can go a long way toward reducing the isolation many parents feel after receiving a child’s diagnosis.
Respite care – Every parent needs a break now and again. And for parents coping with the added stress of ASD, this is especially true. In respite care, another caregiver takes over temporarily, giving you a break for a few hours, days, or even weeks.
Individual, marital, or family counseling – If stress, anxiety, or depression is getting to you, you may want to see a therapist of your own. Therapy is a safe place where you can talk honestly about everything you’re feeling—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Marriage or family therapy can also help you work out problems that the challenges of life with an autistic child are causing in your spousal relationship or with other family members.