Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have difficulty with behavior and communication. Although there is currently no cure for autism, there is hope in the future that someday there will be a cure. Fortunately, there are medications and therapies that can help minimize the effects that autism has on children. Parents must consider all treatment options and choose what is best for their child.
The treatments currently available for children with autism spectrum disorder are used to manage and treat the symptoms of the disorder. There are several medications used to treat ASD, including:
- Stimulants – These drugs are used to treat hyperactivity or inattention of autistic children. Children with autism generally suffer from other conditions such as attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Medical professionals call this comorbidity meaning one or more disorders exist in addition to a primary disorder. Ritalin is a medication used to stimulate the brain.
- Antipsychotics – These medications work by controlling the intensity of dopamine in the brain. These medications help to reduce behaviors in autistic children such as self-injury and aggression. A few of the drugs include Fluphenazine, Haloperidol, Thioridazine, and Chloropromazine. Risperidone and Abilify are new drugs used to treat aggression and self-injury in autistic children. Other antipsychotic medication includes Geodon, Clonidine, and Zyprexa.
- Anticonvulsants – This category of medication controls seizures. It is a very important medication since one in four people with autism has seizures. A few of the most frequently used anticonvulsants used by autistic children include Depakote, Lamictal, Topamax, and Tegretol.
- Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) – This category of medication is commonly called antidepressants. SSRIs are used to control depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Many autistic children suffer from these conditions. The medications approved for children with autism ages seven and older include Zoloft, Prozac, Anafranil, and Luvox.
- Secretin – Doctors prescribe this medication for autistic children with digestive issues.
Therapy treatments are another option that children with autism have to reduce the symptoms associated with the disorder. Many autistic children use therapy in conjunction with medications, if this is the doctor’s recommendation. The following are treatment options currently available:
- Occupational Therapy – This type of therapy teaches autistic children the skills they need to live as independent as possible. Skills such as eating, bathing, and dressing are skills that children need now and once they become independent adults.
- The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) – This form of therapy teaches autistic children communication skills. Many have difficulty communicating with others so this therapy is great for them. PECS uses picture symbols to have a conversation and ask and answer questions. Verbal and nonverbal autistic children can benefit from using PECS as a form of therapy.
- Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication-Handicapped Children (TEACCH) – This therapy allows autistic children to use visual cues to learn important skills. For example, children can learn how to get ready for school in the morning by using picture cards. TEACCH breaks down the information that children must learn into small steps so that it is easier for them to learn.
- Sensory Integration Therapy – This therapy uses the senses to help autistic children deal with sensory information. Many children with autism are hypersensitive to certain sounds, smells, and textures. During the sessions, they learn to tolerate what they are hypersensitive to so that they become tolerable.
- Speech Therapy – This therapy is designed to improve the communication skills of autistic children. Many autistic children have difficulty communicating, especially those who are nonverbal. Speech therapy allows them to learn verbal communication skills if they are verbal while those who are nonverbal use pictures and gesture to communicate with others.
- Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) – This form of treatment is very notable and is designed to encourage autistic children to use positive behaviors instead of negative behaviors. This therapy discourages negative behaviors so that autistic children can improve a variety of skills. The program provides structure, organization, and direction, which is very important to autistic children. The child’s progress is measured and tracked with this therapy. Several types of applied behavior analysis exist, including:
- Verbal Behavior Intervention (VBI) – This type of ABA therapy focuses on developing the child’s verbal skills. Children with verbal deficits will benefit most from this program, but it can also work for all autistic children because it can help improve their communication skills.
- Discrete Trial Training (DTT) – This therapy teaches children through a series of steps. Breaking larger tasks into smaller tasks that are easy to understand is the best approach to teaching autistic children. DTT uses a series of trials to teach autistic children. The trials are used to teach children each step toward a desired response or behavior. Lessons are condensed to simple parts. Incorrect answers are ignored while correct behaviors and answers are rewarded with positive reinforcement.
- Pivotal Response Training (PRT) – The focus of PRT is increasing a child’s ability to communicate with others and motivate his or her own learning and behavior. It is believed that when autistic children experience positive changes in the above stated behaviors that other behaviors will be affected in a positive manner.
- Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI) – This is a type of therapy used on very young children with autism. Therapy takes place between the ages of 2 and 5. It involves intensive behavior intervention early in development of the child with autism. EIBI uses trial teaching of information broken down into basic components and rewarding the child’s positive behavior with reinforcement and praise.
Other autism treatments are known as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). These practices and therapies are not considered part of conventional medicine. Some medical professionals prescribe these treatment options to treat children with autism. A significant number of parents are willing to use these CAM treatments to treat the symptoms of their child’s autism. The following are CAM treatments for autism in children:
- Chelation Therapy – This method of autism therapy removes heavy metals out of the blood through a process called chelation. One of the many theories is that autism is the result of heavy metal toxicity, particularly mercury. The process involved detoxification using oral medication and urine analysis.
- Acupuncture – This form of therapy is part of traditional Chinese medicine. The process involves the systematic process of inserting and manipulating tiny needles into the body of an autistic child. The process is supposed to improve the mental and physical health of the child by unblocking the flow of energy. The process currently administers acupuncture using the scalp, electo acupuncture, and the tongue.
- Melatonin – The pineal gland releases melatonin as the result of decreasing levels of light in this hormone. Melatonin is responsible for igniting the body’s sleep clock. Many children with autism have a number of sleep problems in which melatonin is used to help them fall asleep.
- Special Diets (gluten free and casein) – Another approach at treating autism is changing dietary factors. It is believed that the removal of certain foods, such as casein and gluten, help improve the symptoms of autism. This treatment operates on the belief that food allergies are the cause of autism. Many parents believe that dietary changes help to improve the way their child feels and acts.
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids – This supplement is essential to brain development. It is believed that children with autism have low levels of omega 3 fatty acids so this form of therapy is designed to increase the levels and improve the symptoms of autism in children.
- Vitamins – Multivitamins and vitamins are supposed to improve the metabolic and nutritional status of autistic children. The nutritional status of autistic children is associated with the severity of their autism. In addition, the children sleep better and have improved gastrointestinal symptoms. A few of the vitamins that are supposed to help treat autistic children include B6, magnesium, iron, B12, and vitamin C.
- Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) – This form of therapy is supposed to help children with autism with their interaction skills. Autistic children participate in this therapeutic opportunity to interact with animals. The therapy is supervised and structured for children. The basis of the therapy is that the animals are transitional objects in which autistic children form a bond. Once they form positive attachments to the animals, autistic children can transition their interaction skills to adults.
- Music Therapy – This type of therapy is good for assisting expression, relationships, joint attention, engagement, and communication. The therapy involves the use of unstructured and structured sessions and can be either group or individual session. Additionally, the music therapy may involve listening and/or playing music. Autistic children may participate in these sessions with or without a leader.
- Massage Therapy – This alternative therapy manipulates superficial layers of connective tissue and muscle to improve relaxation, bodily functioning, and well-being. This therapy is suggested for children with autism because it improves connectivity with those around them and reduces overarousal.
- Immune Therapy – Evidence continues to mount that autistic children have autoimmunity and immune deficiencies. This type of therapy is designed to block autoimmunity or block immune function. Autistic children also experience improvements in behavior and GI symptoms.
One research in particular has some very interesting findings regarding an autism cure. The study appeared in The Journal of the American Medical Association titled “Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Autism” and it believe that autism is the result of increases in oxidative stress, loss of energy production in cells, and damage to the mitochondria. According to the study, the energy disturbance was not due to genetic factors but rather a condition acquired at birth or utero. In other words, too much stress and not enough energy causes the neurons to misfire so no connection is made for autistic children.
The causes of mitochondria dysfunction are related to the brain and metabolism. As many of the autism therapies suggest that latent infections, environmental toxins, sugar, nutritional deficiencies, processed foods, persistent organic pollutants, allergens, nutrient-depleted diet, and gluten are the reasons autism exists. The study wants to get the message across that nerodevelomental disorders are not found in just one of these factors but in all factors in varying degrees. The biological dysfunction comes in different pattern that are unique to each autistic child and results in symptoms of autism.
The subject of this study (male child) was studied for two years. His energy loss was due to mercury, gut inflammation, and nutritional deficiencies, which were treated over the two-year study. Eventually his oxidative stress and mitochondrial function levels normalized. Once the subject’s levels became normal, so did he. This study supports the theory that autism is reversible.
This research does not support other studies that suggest that autism is genetic. The gene MSNP1AS may increase the risk of autism in children. The Autism Tissue Program (ATP) of Autism Speak made the findings of this research possible. Postmortem tissue makes research like this and other research methods for the future possible. The information regarding this research appeared in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
All of these treatments and therapies have the potential to be effective. Every child with autism is different so no one approach will work for all individuals. Parents and their child must work together to find the best treatment option for the child’s autism. Many autistic children use multiple treatment methods to reduce the symptoms of their autism. It is important to be treated for autism as soon as the symptoms occur so that early intervention can take place.
Medical professionals make suggestions based on what they believe is in the best interest of the child, but parents and their child make the final decision on the treatment options. It may require trying several treatment options until the right treatment is discovered. Parents should always make sure that the child is comfortable with the treatment methods used.
There are side effects with any type of medication used to treat autism, but if the treatment causes too many problems for the child, parents should consider other options. Therapies and CAM treatments offer alternatives to treating autism with medications, but many of the studied therapies and alternative treatments have not been studied enough to determine the effectiveness. Discuss all treatment options with a medical professional before starting or ending any form of treatment.
Research continues to try to find new ways to treat autism in children. Although there is currently no treatment for autism there are currently many research studies in progress and ones yet to be discovered that hold a great deal of promise in the quest to cure autism.