Intervention and Quality of Life

Your child has received a diagnosis of autism. You are faced with many choices that can seem overwhelming. You have taken an important first step by seeking out information. If you learn as much as you can, visit schools and facilities offering intervention, talk to professionals and other parents, and consider all your options, you’ll be able to make an informed decision about the treatment options that most suit your child’s needs. According to the American Academy of Pediatricians, evidence indicates that “early and intensive behavioral and educational intervention can make a significant positive impact on long-term outcomes.” So time is of the essence, and the decisions you make are important.

Potential Members of the Intervention Team

Intervention invariably involves more than one treatment and multiple providers, i.e. an intervention team. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) recommends that several types of professionals and services be involved in taking care of a child with autism. This team should be under the direction of one certified and experienced professional who will develop, organize, advocate for, and watch over your child’s specific program. The team may include some or all of the following professionals: Developmental Pediatrician, Child Psychiatrist, Neurologist, Board Certified Behavior Analyst, Child Psychologist, Special or General Education Teacher, Occupational Therapist, Physical Therapist, and/or Speech/Language Therapist.

Frequently Used Interventions

The Treatment Options section on this site provides a more comprehensive list of interventions derived from the National Autism Center's National Standards Project, but the six described below are some of those most frequently used in integrated intervention approaches.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

ABA is an intensive, evidence-based approach to early intervention. Children usually work about up to 40 hours a week with a trained, ideally Board Certified, professional. Interventions based upon the principles of ABA have been documented as highly effective in teaching a range of academic, social, communicative, motor, and adaptive skills. The central theory behind ABA is that behavior that is reinforced (rewarded) is more likely to be repeated than behavior that is not reinforced. Behavioral intervention seems to help children “learn to learn.” Behavior Analysts focus heavily on skill and language development using the Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills (ABLLS) educational tool. Research has shown that ABA-based interventions consistently teach new skills and behaviors to children with autism. Be advised that waiting lists for Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) can be long because the demand is so great.

Speech and Language Therapy

Communication challenges are at the heart of an autism spectrum diagnosis and may contribute to behavior problems. The inclusion of a speech/language therapist in your child's team may help improve his or her communication skills. Some speech therapists who work with children with autism incorporate the principles of ABA into their practice to encourage positive behavior and help the children develop increasingly greater communication skills. A child’s progress in language acquisition can be rated with a tool used by many speech therapists called The Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills (ABLLS). The ABLLS is an assessment, curriculum guide, and skills tracking system used for children with autism. The ABLLS allows therapists and teachers to carefully track a child’s specific task objectives. For more on assessment and ABLLS, please see OAR's Life Journey through Autism: A Parent's Guide to Assessment.

Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children (TEACCH)

TEACCH is a structured teaching approach based on the idea that the environment should be adapted to the child with autism, not the other way around. The goal of the TEACCH approach is to provide the child with the necessary skills to understand his or her world and other people’s behavior. Because TEACCH tends to build upon skills children with autism already have, some families may see it as more congenial approach than the more structured interventions associated with ABA.

Picture Exchange Communication Systems (PECS)

One of the main areas affected by autism is the child’s ability to communicate. PECS helps get basic language underway as well as provides a way of communicating for children that do not talk. PECS uses ABA-based methods to teach children to exchange a picture for something they want—such as an item or activity. This approach enables a child with autism to communicate more easily.

Occupational Therapy

Children with autism may benefit from working with an occupational therapist. An occupational therapist is a trained and licensed healthcare professional who will evaluate the impact of the disorder on the activities of a child or adult with autism at home, school, and work and then works with other members of the intervention team to reduce physical and psycho-social disabilities through activities with specific goals.

Physical Therapy

Children with autism often may have challenges with physical coordination and motor skills. In addition, they may not always be as physically active, capability notwithstanding, as typical children due in part to limited interest and social skills and parental considerations like supervision and safety. A physical therapist will design a regimen that will help children with autism develop muscle strength and physical fitness while at the same time addressing issues related to coordination and motor skills.

Recommended Reading

Life Journey through Autism: A Parent's Guide to Research