About therapies and supports for autistic children
Therapies and supports can help autistic children develop well.
Below is a summary of the main types of therapies and supports for autistic children, using behavioural, developmental, family-based, medical and alternative categories. This is just one way to categorise therapies and supports, and you’ll find that some therapies and supports are based on or combine others.
In each category below, we also look at what the research says about whether therapies and supports help autistic children. Behavioural and developmental therapies and supports seem to help the most. And therapies and supports are most helpful when there’s family input.
The therapies and supports you choose will depend on what’s right for your child. Ideally, professionals will help you find an approach that makes the most of your child’s strengths and the way they naturally do things. This can help your child learn, develop and thrive.
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.
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 work on autistic children’s skills for forming positive, meaningful relationships with other people. They also help children learn social, communication and daily living skills in everyday and structured settings.
Research suggests that these approaches help autistic children.
Examples of developmental therapies and supports include:
Combined therapies and supports
Some therapies and supports combine elements of behavioural and developmental therapies and supports.
A combined approach can often help a lot, because it brings together the most useful ideas and techniques from several therapies and supports. For example, any behavioural therapy or support will be more effective 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 be involved in deciding on and using therapies and supports for their children.
Family-based therapies and supports guide, train and inform the families of autistic children. The idea is that autistic children do best when their families are supported. Their success depends on also having strong and collaborative parent-professional relationships.
An example of a family-based therapy is More Than Words.
Therapy-based supports focus on specific skills or difficulties. They’re often used in combination with behavioural or developmental therapies and supports.
For example, children might have:
- speech pathology to develop language and social skills, including supports like Functional Communication Training (FCT), Key Word Sign or Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)
- occupational therapy to develop skills for daily life, including physical skills
- psychological or psychiatric therapy for anxiety or depression
- physiotherapy for difficulties with walking or other body movements.
If you’re looking into these types of therapies, it’s important to choose therapists who are experienced in working with autistic children.
Medical therapies and supports
Medicines can sometimes help autistic children, particularly when children have behaviour, emotional and learning challenges that interfere with their:
- health and wellbeing
- ability to learn and progress
- daily life and the daily lives of their family.
Medicines might help with:
- aggressive behaviour
- obsessive behaviour
- hyperactive behaviour or overactivity
- sleep problems
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 alternative therapies help autistic children. In fact, a lot of evidence shows that some of these therapies have no effect – for example, secretin. And evidence also shows that other therapies might harm children – for example, chelation.
These therapies and supports – even the ones that do no direct harm – also use time, energy and sometimes money that families could otherwise spend on established therapies that do help autistic children.
Examples of alternative therapies and supports include:
Other therapies and supports
This category includes therapies and supports that sit outside the categories listed above. So far there isn’t much quality research on the effectiveness of many of these programs.
Examples of this type of therapy include:
- music therapy
- art therapy
- play-based therapies like Lego Therapy.