Treatments for Autism: Evidence-Based, Complementary & Controversial Therapies

Thanks to the internet, a wealth of helpful information about autism and scientifically sound treatments for it are just a few keystrokes away. Unfortunately, so is an endless trove of misinformation, misleading claims, and false "cures." For parents of a newly diagnosed child, the research journey can be bewildering. This blog will help cut through the clutter by highlighting mainstream evidence-based autism treatments, complementary and alternative (CAM) remedies that may help, as well as potentially harmful controversial and unfounded treatments.


A Brief Look at Autism

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder that currently affects one out of every 54 children in the United States. More common in boys, the condition generally appears before the age of three.

Autism impacts areas of the brain involved with social skills, cognitive functioning, and communication. Some on the autism spectrum have only mild impairments, while others have significant deficits. As many as 40 percent of children with autism are nonverbal.

Mental inflexibility, the inability to make eye contact or respond to social cues in typical ways, and disruptive and repetitive behaviors are just a few of the problems associated with autism.

To compound the challenges, children diagnosed with ASD are prone to additional medical issues or comorbidities. The most common include epilepsy, gastrointestinal problems, eating and sensory integration issues, sleeping disorders, asthma, and anxiety.


Goals of Autism Therapies 

There is no cure for autism, but treatments can dramatically improve physical discomfort, daily functioning, and maladaptive behaviors like disobedience, aggression, meltdowns, and self-injury.

Treatments for autism are customized and based on the type and severity of symptoms, age, cognitive abilities, communication capabilities, and other factors. Interventions should treat both symptoms linked to autism, as well as coinciding medical conditions.

But not all treatments for autism are created equal.

Recognizing Evidence-Based Treatments for Autism

Autism experts and practitioners widely recommend evidence-based autism treatments. But what does the term mean?

Evidence-based refers to treatments that have been widely studied through quality scientific research and deemed both safe and effective based on objective and sufficient data.

There is no single standard method to deem a treatment evidence-based, but there are important distinctions to look for in autism interventions:

  • Demonstrated benefits and safety based on scientific data
  • Featured in reputable publications and peer-reviewed scientific journals
  • Researched through numerous, high-quality scientific studies, based on randomized, double-blind, well-matched comparison groups of sufficient size
  • Targeted to meet a child's specific need and not marketed as a cure
  • Delivered in an age-appropriate manner and intensity level
  • Administered by a skilled and qualified professional

The following are some of the most widely studied and utilized science-backed practices in the autism field today.

The Importance of Early and Intensive Intervention

While not a specific treatment method, Early & Intensive (EI) intervention is the most valuable tool for managing and improving autism symptoms. Decades of research illustrate that early diagnosis, followed by intense use of evidence-based treatment interventions, delivers measurable and dramatic gains.

Studies indicate that children who begin treatment two years before starting school can make significant developmental improvements, including the opportunity to participate in standard elementary school settings.

Applied Behavioral Analysis for the Treatment of Autism

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is one of the most well-documented, evidence-based treatments for autism. ABA replaces negative behaviors with more desirable and appropriate actions based on behavioral psychology and learning theory principles. ABA has a well-established record of delivering meaningful, lasting, and measurable improvements.

Pivotal Response Training (PRT) is a form of ABA that increases a child's motivation to learn, modify behavior, and communicate with others. Another type is Discrete Trial Training (DTT)one of the oldest treatments for autism. DTT breaks down skills into small "discrete" steps and uses rewards and prompts to move the child closer to the targeted skill.

Speech, Occupational and Physical Therapies for Autism

Language and communication deficits are common among children on the autism spectrum. Speech and language therapy helps children express their wants and needs more effectively through verbal, nonverbal, or social communication. Tools like sign language, gestures, and picture communication systems (PCS) are helpful aids for nonverbal children.

Children with autism often struggle with writing, dressing, feeding, and hygiene due to fine motor skills impairments. Problems with processing information from the senses are also common in children on the spectrum. Occupational Therapy (OT) addresses both by improving motor skills, sensory processing, and daily functioning.  

It is not uncommon for children with autism to struggle with gross motor skills, balance, and coordination. Physical Therapy (PT) is an evidence-based treatment that helps improve muscle tone and proprioception, which is an awareness of the body in relation to surrounding space. Skilled therapists also teach kids new skills like riding a bike or bouncing a ball and improving posture and fitness.

Medications for Autism Spectrum Disorder 

No discussion of autism evidence-based treatment options would be complete without a discussion of pharmaceutical therapy. Medication can help improve anxiety, make behavioral interventions more effective, and reduce maladaptive behaviors like aggression, deliberate self-harm, and tantrums. But prescription drugs are not always necessary, particularly when it comes to managing adverse behaviors.

Before adding medication to the treatment plan, autism experts recommend first ruling out underlying medical conditions that may be causing distress. Incorporating a behavior modification therapy like applied behavior analysis or cognitive behavioral therapy is next. A psychiatrist may recommend medication if these interventions are insufficient. Several have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in children and teens with autism.

Natural Autism Treatments 

Evidence-based therapies should always be the first-line treatment for autism, but many parents incorporate complementary and alternative remedies (CAM) into their child's autism treatment plan.

According to various surveys, half of the children with autism are treated with at least one CAM remedy. These range from nutritional supplements to mind-body practices like yoga.

While there is no cure for autism, many parents have found nutritional supplements helpful.  Probiotics, fish oil, melatonin, b vitamins, and magnesium are popular options to improve gastrointestinal issues, anxiety, sleep, and energy. Multivitamins can provide added nutrition, particularly for picky eaters. It is important to note that while most supplements are safe, some can be harmful in high doses; consulting a medical provider is advisable.

Many parents find restricted diets helpful in improving problem behaviors, focus, and gastrointestinal symptoms despite mixed reviews and scant research.

The most popular are casein- and gluten-free diets, two proteins found in milk and wheat. In a survey reported by Autism Magazine, 50 percent of children on specialized diets made moderate to significant improvements in social, communication, and analytical skills. While avoiding suspected food allergens may help some children, restricted diets are often dishonestly marketed as a cure for autism.

Mind-body practices like massage therapy, yoga, and meditation are also popular natural treatments for autism. While they do not address the disorder's core deficits, they can improve sleep, emotional control, and anxiety, all common problems associated with the condition.

Other alternative practices that can be beneficial include art, music and dance, therapeutic horseback riding, and emotional support animals. The value in connecting with living creatures, socializing with peers, and exploring new interests is immeasurable for children on the autism spectrum.


Controversial Treatments for Autism 

Healthcare fraud is a significant problem worldwide, and autism is often a target.

There is no shortage of unscrupulous marketers who prey on parental fears with outlandish and unfounded claims and promises of cures or breakthroughs—many of these controversial treatments are unproven, unhelpful, costly, and potentially harmful.

Common red flags include:

  • Lack of peer-reviewed studies
  • Absence from respected medical and science publications
  • Focus on anecdotal evidence and success stories without data
  • Grandiose claims of cures and miraculous breakthroughs

The following are just a few of the unsubstantiated treatments targeted to the autism community.

Chelation therapy is a legitimate treatment for people suffering from heavy metal poisoning. It is deceptively marketed as a therapy for autism, based on the false premise that metals like mercury cause autism. The theory has been widely debunked. Liver and kidney damage can result from the practice.

Lupron is a testosterone inhibitor used to treat precocious puberty and prostate cancer. Unfortunately, it is deceitfully promoted as a cure for autism since testosterone may compound mercury's toxic effects. However, the link between autism and mercury has been disproven. Side effects of Lupron therapy can range from osteoporosis to breathing difficulties.

Antifungal agents are often dishonestly promoted as a cure for autism by killing candida overgrowth in the body. This practice is not based on science as there is no link between yeast and the development of autism. The risk of antifungal treatments includes rashes, stomach pain, and liver damage.

Bleach therapy is a widely denounced treatment for autism. Ingesting diluted bleach to rid the body of heavy metals, toxins, parasites, and yeast is a dangerous practice without merit. It can lead to diarrhea, vomiting, and other detrimental complications.

Help for Children with Autism

ASD is a challenging disorder to manage, but mainstream evidence-based treatments for autism spectrum disorder can significantly improve behaviors, physical discomforts, emotional health, and cognitive development. And these benefits are backed by decades of research and data.

Unfortunately, deceitful claims, fad treatments, and false cures abound. Caution is necessary when considering any non-traditional therapy for autism spectrum disorder.

Does your child have autism? Alliance ABA can help. Call us today to schedule a free consultation.

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