Choosing Autism Treatment Based on Signs & Symptoms


Your knowledge of your child’s autism signs & symptoms can help you choose those most effective therapy.

When your child is first diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it can be overwhelming. There are so many options for treatment; it can be difficult to figure out the best route to take for your child and family as a whole. If you are reading this, there is a good chance that you are seeking an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) or Verbal Behavior (VB) program, or at least checking out your options.

One important thing to remember is that all behaviorally-based autism treatment programs are different. Because all children show different autism symptoms and signs, each option should be carefully examined to determine which one is the best fit for your child. If your child is non-verbal, severely speech delayed, or shows similar autism symptoms, our program at Autism Matters is a good option due to our focus on intensive behavioral intervention, communication and speech-language disorders.

Listed below are some general things to consider when choosing an early intensive behavioral intervention, ABA or VB program for your child:

Intensity - How many hours per week does your child need? Although much depends on your child’s autism symptoms, research shows that 25 to 40 hours per week are optimal to reach best outcomes for children with ASD. This is particularly important in the beginning stages of intervention. Some parents are worried that 25 to 40 hours is too long for their 2 or 3-year-old. This is a valid concern, however, not having them in therapy for these hours is an even bigger concern. Early intervention is extremely important for children with autism signs. It is important that children are learning communication, language and play skills for the majority of their day. For children with ASD, this learning often does not take place naturally. If it did, you probably wouldn't be reading this. It takes highly-trained professionals and specific teaching techniques to effectively build the skills your child needs. There really is no way around it.

Placement - Once you make the decision to enroll your child in an ABA or VB program, you are faced with whether or not to choose a home-based or center-based program. How do you know which format is best for you? The answer is that there are advantages and disadvantages to both. It usually comes down to your preference and your child’s unique autism symptoms.

The advantage to a home-based program, obviously, is that you do not have to drive to the treatment location. Everything is conducted in the comfort of your own home. In addition, you can see/hear what is going on all of the time. You get to know your child's therapists at a deeper level than you would if he/she was in a center-based program. The disadvantage is that your home becomes a therapy center with people constantly coming in and out. This can be hard on the family as a whole. Parents also have to buy all the therapy materials over the course of several years. These materials are expensive and not of use to you after the therapy program ends.

With the center-based program, on the other hand, the materials are typically provided for your child. There are new toys and materials coming in all the time to keep them interested. If they show a range of autism signs and symptoms, kids can sometimes receive other therapies (speech/OT) throughout their day without you driving around from place to place.

Consistent training and supervision of staff is also an advantage of a center-based program. Experienced, supervising professionals are on staff at all times to assist behavior therapists working with your child. This can be a great asset with challenging autism symptoms and specific teaching questions that arise. Having all staff under one roof allows for on-going, regular staff oversight and training.

In a center-based program, there are multiple children there with varying degrees of autism signs. This leads to natural opportunities for social interaction throughout the day. Children can practice skills with other children in short group times that mimic those that occur in most preschool and early school-aged settings, such as circle time. These groups, however, should be brief and have a specific therapeutic purpose.

The disadvantage is that all the social interaction in a center-based program is not always appropriate. Therapists have to constantly be aware of this and reinforce positive, socially appropriate communication and play. Also, some center-based programs allow for excessive "group" programming. Parents need to be aware that a center-based program with several or lengthy "group" times is not necessarily a good thing.

Although it may seem appealing to have your child enrolled in a special art class, an ABA/VB program is meant to be one-on-one therapy. One-on-one intensive behavioral intervention is based on decades of scientific research. Group art class, for example, is not. An ABA/VB program is not supposed to be preschool. If your child has serious speech and language deficits or similar autism symptoms, it will be impossible for those to be addressed sufficiently in general groups. This does not mean all groups are bad. Social skills groups designed and implemented by a trained, licensed professional can be beneficial for the right child at the right stage in their language development. This is a separate service, however. Quality, evidence-based ABA/VB programs are one-on-one. One child. One therapist.

Child/Family Challenges - Choosing the appropriate program for your child should depend largely on the challenges you face on a day-to-day basis. If your child is not initiating interaction with you (i.e., pulling your arm to have you get something for him/her), not talking at all or not talking at an age appropriate level, presenting with challenging behaviors, not communicating his/her needs, has feeding issues (i.e., picky eater) and/or all of the above, he/she needs to be enrolled in an intensive behavioral intervention program with a strong emphasis on speech-language pathology. This means that an SLP must have a significant, on-going role in the development of your child's program. Behavioral intervention is crucial for learning. It's backed by scientific evidence. Speech-language pathologists are masters-level trained professionals who understand communication and speech disorders, as well as anatomy and physiology of the oral musculature. Therefore, a child with the issues listed above needs both professionals to be on the same page and have substantial input on day-to-day programming.

Transition Planning - After some children reach a certain skill level (approx. 2-3 years of therapy), it is often appropriate to cut down on the intensive hours and start the transition into school. In this case, children are typically enrolled in a half-time program. Children in a transition program typically continue regular individual speech-language therapy sessions. The half-time program should be designed to fill in any missing language and social skills and set children up for success in the classroom. The other half of the day is spent in school. Over time, children typically transition into school full time.

Throughout this transition process, it is important to have a speech-language pathologist (SLP) on staff to collaborate regularly with the ABA or VB supervising staff members. ABA/VB early intervention programs can be limited in terms of advanced language treatment for children who are in the "transition" stage. SLPs understand typical language development across the lifespan and are therefore an important part of the transition process. It is also important that the SLP be well-versed in ABA and/or VB programming to ensure consistency across treatment environments.

For more general information on autism and other treatment options, take a look at the websites listed below:

Center for Disease Control

Autism Speaks

National Institute of Health