Treatments for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children

If your child has just been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you may feel you've entered a maze, trying to find the best therapies to help your child communicate, have meaningful interactions with others and develop the skills he needs to reach his full potential.

Behavioral therapies for autism

A variety of intensive behavioral therapies can help children with ASD build language, social and play skills. Most are provided through programs run by your state and local school system. They include early intervention services for children under age 3 and special education services for children age 3 and older.

We can recommend specific therapies and educational strategies that address your child’s needs while playing to her strengths. For instance, some children are strong visual learners: they may not understand if you explain something verbally, but can instantly grasp a new idea from a picture. Some children may not speak or make good eye contact, but can understand spoken requests and explanations.

In any case, experts agree that therapy should start as early as possible, should be intensive and highly structured, should be done one-on-one or in very small groups and should actively include families. Often, children receive a combination of different therapies. The effectiveness of any therapy plan should be evaluated frequently, so that changes can be made if needed.

  • Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) is a well studied, often very effective therapy that identifies behaviors that need to be reduced and those that need to be reinforced. ABA involves practicing new skills repeatedly and creating positive reinforcements. The therapist breaks down new skills into small steps so a child can build more complex skills over time, and customizes the program to each child's interests, abilities and behavior.
  • DIR®/Floortime™ is a developmental relationship-based therapy that uses social relationships between caregivers and children to improve a child’s social and communication skills.
  • Other relationship-based therapies include SCERTS® (Social Communication, Emotional Regulation and Transactional Supports) and RDI (Relationship Development Intervention).

Our team at the Autism Spectrum Center includes ASD resource specialists who will help you choose among developmental and educational therapies and navigate community resources. Click the Coping & Support tab to learn more.

Additional therapies

Your child's treatment program may also involve a number of other components:

  • Speech-language therapy can help your child understand language and use it to express himself. At Boston Children’s, extensive services are offered through our Center for Communication Enhancement.
  • Total communication interventions through our Autism Language Program can help your child use any possible means of communication—including speech, symbol systems, gestures, sign language and innovative technologies.
  • Occupational and physical therapy may develop your child's fine and gross motor skills (e.g., using her hands or other parts of her body) and dealing with sensory inputs from her environment.

Are there complementary therapies for autism?

Many families use complementary therapies such as supplements, diet changes or alternative biomedical interventions. Our team is always happy to discuss these therapies with you, and would want to be aware of any therapies that you’re considering.

Unfortunately, while there is a lot of anecdotal information available, especially on the Internet, most of these treatments are not well studied. Some medications, herbal therapies, vitamin supplements or special diets, even if termed “natural” or “herbal,” may be ineffective and even unsafe or harmful if not used properly. For example, many families consider the gluten-free/casein-free diet, but careful implementation is important to avoid nutritional problems that could impact your child’s health and growth.

Are there medications for autism?

There’s currently no medication for the core symptoms of ASD, although this is an area of active research at Boston Children’s. Medications are, however, often used successfully for symptoms related to ASD, such as irritability, hyperactivity or attention problems, anxiety or seizures. Often, once these related symptoms are treated, your child can make more progress with behavioral therapies for ASD itself.

Ongoing care

As your child grows up, the therapies that he needs will probably change. After the initial assessment, we will follow your child closely to:

  • see how he is developing and how his therapies are working for him
  • make new recommendations for education and therapy
  • watch for any related medical concerns
  • discuss any questions and concerns you may have.

Our goal is for every child with ASD to lead an active and happy life.

Contact Us

Boston Children's Hospital
Autism Spectrum Center
Call Center:  617-355-7493
Fax: 617-730-4823

Our coordinator will make the first available appointment based on an intake process that considers your child’s specific needs. For example, children who also have seizures may be directed to a neurologist within the Center, while children with speech, language and communication difficulties may be referred to our Autism Language Program, part of the Center for Communication Enhancement.

Appointments are available in Boston and at many Boston Children’s satellite locations to provide you and your child with care closer to home. The Call Center can help direct you.