- Early intervention
- Managing challenging behaviors
- Visual cues
- Autism-friendly spaces
- Treating gastrointestinal problems
- Managing autism at school
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a developmental disorder that affects how people communicate and interact with others, how they behave and how they learn. People with autism do not all experience the same symptoms or even experience symptoms at the same intensity.
There is no standard treatment for autism spectrum disorder. However, there are therapies and support services available which aim to help people with autism improve their symptoms and manage the condition. Behavioral therapy and various other management methods can assist the person with autism in coping with differences in how they sense and perceive the world around them. However, how someone with autism feels and processes sensory inputs will be different to the ways in which people without the condition do.
Symptoms of autism generally appear by the time a child is two years old. Although treatment, particularly behavioral therapy and skills training, is most helpful when started at an early age, any person at any age can benefit from appropriate treatment. Which treatments work best will vary from person to person, depending on the severity of their symptoms and what they have difficulty with.
Early intervention for autism
In the U.S., early intervention services are available for children under the age of three, who are at risk of developmental disorders, including autism spectrum disorder. These services focus on:
- Language development
- Help with walking and coordination
- Interacting with others
- Recognizing and managing emotions
Local healthcare providers can assist in finding appropriate services for eligible children. Outside the U.S., some countries have similar programs, and healthcare providers can likewise assist parents or caregivers in finding support services.
There is no cure for autism spectrum disorder. However, people with autism can learn coping skills to help them function better on a day-to-day basis. Carers and others who interact with people with autism can also help by managing their own behavior and environment.
Therapy for autism
Therapy for autism spectrum disorder aims to enable the person with autism to be as functional and independent as possible and alleviate behaviors that might make this difficult..** There are various types of therapy available. Which ones are most appropriate varies from person to person and will depend on the needs and symptoms of the person with autism. A medical professional will be able to offer guidance on which type of therapy is likely to be most beneficial.
Many therapies involve the whole family, so that family members can learn how to support and help the person with autism. In young children, it is recommended that effective interventions should involve around 25 hours a week of active engagement.
- Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT): Helps people recognize the connection between thoughts, feelings and behaviors
- Behavioral management therapy: Uses various techniques to teach skills which improve social skills and reduce problematic behaviors
- Occupational therapy: Helps with skills, such as getting dressed or the skills needed for employment
- Social skills training: Can help children cope with conversations and other social interactions
Speech therapy for autism
Many people with autism spectrum disorder experience delays in learning to talk, with up to 50 percent of them being nonverbal, meaning that they do not talk. Being able to communicate using speech by the time a child goes to school has been linked to more positive outcomes as the child grows into adulthood. Early intervention is therefore important.
Speech-language therapy can help a person with autism express needs, desires and feelings. It can also improve a person’s vocabulary and speed of speech.
Managing challenging behaviors
- Have the person tested to check for medical problems that could be causing distress
- Behavioral therapy
- Reward positive behavior
- Communicate simply to minimize frustration
- Reduce sensory overload
- Offer cues to redirect behavior, such as verbal or gentle physical instruction
- Provide relaxation opportunities
- Be consistent and encourage others do the same
Some challenging behaviors can be mitigated by allowing the behavior, but changing an element to make it more socially acceptable. For example, if a person smears feces because they enjoy the sensation, the feces can be replaced with a substance such as modelling clay or cornflour mixed with water. In the case of people with autism who have pica (a disorder that involves eating things that are not food, for example soil, hair, paper or chalk), inappropriate items can be replaced with something edible and nutritious.
Managing repetitive behavior in autism
Repetitive behaviors such as hand flapping or rocking may help a person with autism spectrum disorder. However, some repetitive behaviors, such as head banging, could cause the person harm. Other behaviors may cause distractions, particularly if they take place in environments such as school, or can be problematic if the person often engages in them to block out external sensory input.
- Behavioral therapy
- Replacing harmful activities with safer activities
- Change the environment to reduce distressing sensory input
- Introduce other forms of stimulation, such as calming activities
Using visual cues to manage autism
People with autism are often highly reliant on routine. A visual timetable that shows what is going to happen during an activity, outing or a day can provide reassurance and prevent stress.
Pictograms and simple instructional diagrams in soft colors can provide information to people with autism spectrum disorder. Such signs can indicate what room a person is in, how to operate an appliance or how to open a window.
Visual supports can also provide a way to communicate for people with autism who are nonverbal. Cards of various colors or with simple pictograms can indicate a need, desire or mood.
Toys for autism
People with autism spectrum disorder process sensory information, such as touch, sight, taste, sound and smell differently to people without the condition. Certain toys can provide sensory feedback and, while this is not a treatment, it may help a person with autism focus or feel relaxed.
Examples of such toys include:
- Fidget toys
- Stress balls
- Bubble wands or machines
- Sorting and matching games
- Toy trains
- Tactile books
- Construction bricks
Relaxed theatre performances with reduced noise and light levels and more freedom to move around Specific museum and gallery visiting hours with dimmer lights, fewer people and break areas Autism-friendly times at shopping malls and supermarkets, with fewer people and no background music
Local autism spectrum support groups and healthcare providers may be able to advise on what services and autism-friendly facilities are available in your area.
Medication for autism
There are no medications that can cure autism spectrum disorder, but some medications may help ease symptoms. Medication is often used to manage a behavior if it threatens to cause harm to the person, such as head banging or slapping.
Other medications that can be used to treat some symptoms of autism include:
- Antidepressants, including tricyclics and SSRIs: Can reduce anxiety, irritability and aggression
- Anti-anxiety medication: Can reduce anxiety and panic
- Stimulants: Can help increase focus for people with less severe symptoms
Treating gastrointestinal problems in autism
It is common to find gastrointestinal problems in people with autism spectrum disorder. Treatment involves diagnosing and treating the underlying issue which is causing the gastrointestinal distress.
Exclusion diets, such as not eating gluten or casein should not be used unless the person has a specific gastrointestinal problem, and dietary changes are recommended by a doctor. A large study found that, on the whole, children with autism that are given vitamin supplements do not need these supplements and may develop too-high levels of vitamins such as vitamin A and folate.
Managing autism in the classroom
Increasingly, children with autism spectrum disorders attend mainstream schools. However, as their needs and behaviours can differ from those of students who do not have ASD, classroom support is important to ensure that these children and teenagers can maximise their educational potential.
- Unstructured times such as free periods, recess and lunch hour
- Socializing and communicating with other children and adults
- The expectation that information will be processed quickly and uniformly by the entire class
- The expectation that the entire class will stick to the same routine, regardless of individual interests or the speed at which they complete work
- The expectation that all learners in a class should have the same organization and planning skills
- The expectation that all members of a class be able to retain information while taking in new information, maintain focus on what is relevant and think abstractly.
- High amounts of sensory input in the classroom, sport or playground environment
For these reasons, many learners with ASD may find common school activities, such as group work or physical education quite challenging; this can lead to depression and anxiety among children and teenagers with ASD. It is important that teachers and classroom aides learn appropriate ways to guide learners with ASD through the educational process.
Teachers and classroom aides who work with children with ASD can assist them by familiarizing themselves with autism spectrum disorders and the challenges that people affected by them face. Teachers may also find it helpful to:
- Speak to the parents or guardians of the child or teenager concerned before they start classes, in order to familiarize themselves with the child and their particular needs
- Speak to the affected child or teenager’s previous teachers, tutors or caregivers
- Establish and stick to a routine with the child or teenager with ASD as early as possible, paying special attention to such matters as where to sit, when to leave the classroom to go to the bathroom, recess or another class, and what to do at the end of the day when it is time to go home
- Prepare them beforehand for any changes to routine, such as the regular teacher’s absence, special lessons, tests or field trips
- Use the learner’s name when speaking to them to ensure that they know they are being spoken to
- Familiarize themselves with the learner’s interests and use them as a way to engage the child in the classroom
- Establish a safe space where the learner can go if they feel overwhelmed, such as during physical education or assembly
- Deal with any and all bullying promptly
- Keep the lines of communication simple and clear
In many parts of the world, school districts and educational authorities may have access to training courses or seminars on how to make classroom education as comfortable as possible for learners with autism. At the same time, some schools may be able to assign a classroom aide with appropriate training to assist any learners with ASD, and these learners may also attend autism-support facilities outside of the school environment.
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CNN. “Stores offer quiet shopping for families of kids with autism.” December 2016. Accessed June 12, 2018. ↩
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. “Autism spectrum disorder in adults: diagnosis and management.” August 2016. Accessed June 12, 2018. ↩
Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Dietary Supplementation in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Common, Insufficient, and Excessive.” August 2015. Accessed June 12, 2018. ↩
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