About therapies and supports for autistic children
There are many therapies and supports for autistic children.
These therapies and supports work on different areas of difficulty. They range from behavioural and developmental therapies and supports to medical and alternative therapies. They also include combined approaches.
Below is a summary of the main types of therapies and supports for autistic children. This is just one way to categorise therapies and supports, and you’ll find that some therapies and supports are based on others or combine others.
In each category below, we also look at what the research says about whether these therapies and supports work. Behavioural and developmental therapies and supports have the best outcomes for most autistic children. And all therapies and supports work best with family input.
The therapies and supports you choose will depend on what’s right for your child. Ideally, professionals will work with you to find an approach that helps your child develop, thrive and reach their goals and that also suits your family’s circumstances.
Behavioural therapies and supports
Behavioural therapies and supports for autistic children use specialised, structured techniques to help children learn new behaviours and skills. These therapies and supports are generally referred to as Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) approaches.
Many of these therapies and supports use specialised behaviour techniques along with other strategies. And different therapies and supports use the techniques in different ways. For example, Discrete Trial Training (DTT) works on children’s behaviour by breaking behaviour skills down into steps. It looks different from the Early Start Denver Model, which builds behaviour techniques into children’s play.
Research has shown that ABA approaches work. But there’s also some controversy about ABA. Some members of the autism community feel that ABA sometimes aims to stop behaviours like flapping or stimming, which can be calming or enjoyable for autistic people.
Examples of behavioural therapies and supports include:
- Discrete Trial Training (DTT)
- Early Intensive Behavioural Intervention (EIBI)
- incidental teaching
- Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT)
- Positive Behaviour Support (PBS).
Developmental therapies and supports
Developmental therapies and supports for autistic children aim to enhance children’s development by helping them form positive, meaningful relationships with other people. They also help children learn social, communication and daily living skills in both everyday and structured settings.
A growing body of research suggests that these approaches work.
Examples of developmental therapies and supports include:
Combined therapies and supports
Some therapies and supports combine elements of behavioural and developmental therapies and supports.
Often a combined approach is the most effective, because it brings together characteristics of several effective therapies and supports. For example, any behavioural therapy or support will work better if it’s also family-based and includes developmental therapies or supports that focus on learning skills.
Combined therapies and supports are supported by recent research.
Examples of combined therapies and supports include:
Family-based therapies and supports
Family-based therapies and supports for autistic children emphasise the idea that family involvement in therapy is central to meeting children’s developmental needs. In particular, they’re based on the idea that parents should not only drive decision-making about therapies and supports, but they also have a key role in delivering them.
Family-based therapies and supports guide, train, inform and support the families of autistic children. Their success depends on having strong and collaborative parent-professional relationships. Their effectiveness also relies on addressing the needs of the whole family, so that everyone in the family benefits, not just the autistic child.
An example of a family-based therapy is More Than Words®.
Therapy-based supports for autistic children target specific difficulties. Examples include using:
- speech pathology to develop a child’s communication and social skills
- occupational therapy to develop skills for daily life, including physical skills.
Therapy-based supports are often used together with, or as part of, other therapies and supports.
Examples of therapy-based supports include:
Medical therapies and supports
Most medications are used to improve some of the difficulties that autistic children experience, although medication can’t always remove these difficulties altogether.
Medication can be used for difficulties like:
- inattentive or hyperactive behaviour
- symptoms of anxiety
- obsessive compulsive behaviour
- self-harming behaviour
- sleep disorders.
Prescribed medications might reduce these behaviours enough so that behavioural or developmental therapies and supports work better.
Examples of medications include:
Alternative therapies and supports
Alternative therapies and supports for autistic children include a broad range of therapies that mainstream health and autism professionals don’t use. This is because there’s little or no evidence to say that these alternative therapies work. Considerable evidence shows that some of these therapies have no effect – for example, secretin. Evidence also shows that other therapies have risks – for example, chelation.
Another common concern about these therapies and supports – even those that do no direct harm – is that they use time, energy and sometimes money that families could otherwise spend on established therapies that have been shown to work.
Examples of alternative therapies and supports include:
Other therapies and supports
This category includes therapies and solutions that sit outside the categories listed above. So far there isn’t much quality research on the outcomes of these programs.
An example of this type of therapy is music therapy.