Is There a Cure for Autism?
Some families feel relief after an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis. Other families are hesitant to accept the diagnosis. Almost all families feel overwhelmed and ask, “What is the cure for autism?” There is no cure for autism, but there are treatments that can reduce some symptoms. Early intervention is key to making sure your child can function to the best of his/her ability. Therapies, gadgets, and medications are all options to help your child thrive.
How to cure autism naturally
There’s no way to cure autism naturally, but complementary and alternative treatments exist. Some children take gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) supplements. GABA supplements can help reduce fight or flight responses. These responses usually present as fear, anxiety, aggression, stress, and agitation.
Roughly 50 percent of children with autism struggle with good sleep hygiene. Contributing factors include anxiety, irregular circadian rhythms, medication side effects, or hyperactivity. Melatonin is a hormone produced in the pineal gland of the brain. It is plentiful in fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, and bananas. Supplementing with melatonin can help your child establish better sleep patterns. You can buy melatonin as an over-the-counter sublingual. Your child’s pediatrician can help you determine the best dosage for your child.
Children with autism are 3.5 times more likely to have GI distress than their neurotypical peers. Probiotics might help reduce these symptoms. Evidence suggests that the gut-brain connection causes GI distress in children with autism. If your child experiences severe GI distress, he/she should see a gastroenterologist. The most well-researched probiotic for ASD is Bacteroides fragilis. It normalizes gut microbiota and improves gut barrier integrity in animal tests. The animals in testing also showed a reduction in ASD-like symptoms. Anecdotal evidence suggests children with ASD experience similar results.
Vitamin D3 is also linked to improved signs and symptoms related to ASD (Saad, et al., 2018). Amber Tovey is the Program Manager for the Vitamin D Council. She sums up the research by saying that after four months of supplementation, you can see results. Irritability, hyperactivity, social withdrawal, stereotypic behavior, and inappropriate speech were all improved. The children experienced greater cognitive and social awareness. They also decreased repetitive hand movements, random noises, jumping, and restricted interests. The placebo group did not experience any significant improvements (Tovey, 2018).
Finally, Vitamin B6 and magnesium might ease symptoms associated with ASD. Dozens of studies agree that the combination of supplements can be beneficial. Researchers are still trying to understand how they work. Most children studied experienced some improvement in symptoms. The three main areas of improvement are eye-contact, impulse control, and improved communication.
Consult your child’s pediatrician before starting supplements. He/she might order bloodwork to establish your child’s baseline vitamin levels. Lab samples are usually redrawn to be sure the vitamin levels are within a therapeutic range. You can read more about the best supplements and vitamins for autism here.
Another option is medical marijuana or CBD oil. The efficacy of medical marijuana is anecdotal. Families who use it report a decrease in anxiety and self-injurious behaviors. They also say that sleep improves and social interactions are easier.
Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism share testimonials on their website. They say the plant reduces mood dysregulation and seizure activity. Some posts claim it works as well as prescription medication. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is conducting observational research to verify these claims.
Cannabidiol (CBD) oil is a hemp-derived oil from marijuana plants. CBD oil can reduce symptoms such as anxiety, aggression, self-injurious behaviors, and seizures. It contains only trace amounts of psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This means that your child will not feel “high,” but it is less potent than medical marijuana. CBD oil is also legal in more areas than medical marijuana. Dr. Aran is the director of the neuro-pediatric unit at Shaare Zedek Medical Center. He conducted a study on 120 children with autism who received CBD oil. The results are forthcoming. You can read more about the benefits of medical marijuana and CBD oil for autism here.
What is being done to cure autism?
Research has been moving away from finding a cure for autism to focusing on early diagnosis. Len Abbeduto is an autism researcher, psychologist, and director of the MIND Institute. In an interview with NBC News, he said that autism is complex with many manifestations. He thinks searching for a single cure is the wrong approach (Stenson, 2019). He explained that about 80 percent of autism cases are genetic. There is no one “autism gene” though. There is likely a combination of more than 100-1,000 genes and environmental factors at play.
In recent years, the focus has shifted to treatment and therapies. Most children receive their diagnosis in late toddlerhood, around three-four years old. Specialized diagnosticians can now diagnose infants as young as six months old. Diagnosing children younger means receiving treatment younger. Doctors now aim to start treatments when children’s brains display the greatest plasticity. This is usually by age three.
Which treatment for autism spectrum disorder is most promising?
Autism exists on a wide spectrum, and therefore, no one treatment works best. The treatment that is most promising for your child is the one in which he/she is most eager to take part. Finding a team of skilled practitioners, doctors, and teachers is invaluable. Effective treatments are not reserved for children with “high-functioning autism.” Any child with autism can receive quality therapies. It is important to maintain realistic goals for your child. Dr. Stephen Shore said, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” No two children’s progress will be the same. Neither are their goals or milestones. The best therapies for autism are adaptable to the diverse needs of many children. They can usually grow with your child as he/she develops new skills and meets milestones.
What is the most common treatment for autism?
Some of the most common treatments for autism are behavioral and communication therapies. Family and educational therapies and medications/supplementation are also helpful.
What are the best medications for autism?
There is no one medication that will reduce or cure every symptom of autism. Some children use medications to treat specific symptoms. Symptoms commonly treated with medication include mood disorders and anxiety, aggression, and self-injurious behaviors. Seizures and gastrointestinal distress are also treatable with medication. Medications may also be available “off-label.” This means that the drug was not developed for autism, but enough research indicates it is appropriate in treating children with autism.
Your child’s pediatrician might refer your child to a psychiatrist. Pediatric psychiatrists can prescribe antipsychotic drugs, stimulants, antidepressants, mood stabilizers, or anti-anxiety drugs. A neurologist can prescribe anticonvulsants and a gastroenterologist can prescribe gastrointestinal agents. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates medications in the United States. It has approved two antipsychotic medications for children with autism. The generic versions are risperidone and aripiprazole. Your child’s psychiatrist can help you determine if either one is a good fit for your child. These antipsychotics work by blocking dopamine receptors in the brain. Dopamine receptors affect movement, cognition, and mood. Risperidone may affect other chemical pathways in the brain, such as serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is abnormal in some individuals with ASD (“Medications,” 2016). Risperidone is for use in 5-16 year-olds with autism who have high levels of irritability.
Children with mild symptoms are better candidates for stimulants. A psychiatrist can prescribe Ritalin (methylphenidate), Adderall, Concerta, Metadate CD, or Dexedrine. These stimulants are most appropriate for children who exhibit symptoms like ADHD. Stimulants can help reduce hyperactivity, inattention, and poor impulse control.
Anti-depressants can be lifesaving for children with both ASD and depression. Temple Grandin says, “I would not be here now if I did not have anti-depressants.” Depression is a serious condition that is often misdiagnosed in children with autism. Depression screenings are especially important for children with autism. Too often, children are not diagnosed before self-injurious behaviors or suicidal ideation occur. Diagnosing depression before children act on their thoughts is crucial. If you suspect your child has depression, speak with his/her pediatrician. The doctor can refer you to a psychiatrist to determine if anti-depressants might help. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are an FDA-approved option for children. Researchers have linked SSRIs with improved mood, decreased anxiety, and fewer meltdowns. They also decrease repetitive behaviors, aggressive behaviors, and improve eye contact (Medication Treatment for Autism, 2017). TCAs work with fewer unpleasant side effects. Mood stabilizing medications have less research supporting them but can be effective. Lithium, Lamictal, Depakene, Depakote, Tegretol, Topamax, Trileptal, and Keppra are approved for use.
Thirty-three percent of children with autism have co-occurring seizure disorders. Anti-convulsion medications include Xanax, Niravam, Buspar, Ativan, Vivitrol, Valium, melatonin, and antihistamines (“Medications,” 2016). Many of these children also suffer from gastrointestinal distress. Common conditions include acid reflux, constipation, and diarrhea. Researchers are still investigating the link between seizures, gastrointestinal distress, and autism. Medications can reduce uncomfortable dangerous symptoms. Some gastrointestinal symptoms can improve through diet or with the help of over-the-counter medications. Other symptoms will merit medications. A pediatric gastroenterologist evaluates your child’s symptoms and prescribes appropriate medications.
No medication works the same way for every child. It is important to follow prescribed instructions and make note of any side-effects. Your pediatrician or pharmacist can answer questions as they arise. For more information, see Autism Medication Guide: Treating Autism and Its Core Symptoms.
Behavior and Communication Treatments
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is one of the most well-known therapies for autism. Dr. Ole Lovaas developed ABA at the University of California in the 1980s. ABA encourages positive behavioral patterns by rewarding desirable behavior with positive consequences. It seeks to improve interpersonal relationships and social interactions. ABA therapy can feel like a full-time job for both child and caregiver, and in many ways, it is. Some specialists believe a child should receive 40 hours a week of targeted therapy over several years. Consistency is essential at school and home.
Discrete Trial Training
Discrete Trial Training (DTT) teaches children to complete tasks step-by-step. It is often used in conjunction with ABA and is most effective for children who are 2-6 years old. Parents are usually encouraged to focus on one task at a time until they achieve mastery.
In her article Types of Autism Behavior Interventions, Kim Barloso breaks down the five steps of DTT. She gives the example of helping a child brush his/her teeth:
- Antecedent. “It’s time to brush your teeth.”
- Prompt. The parent might mime brushing his/her teeth or point to the toothbrush.
- Response. The child picks up the toothbrush.
- Consequence. The parent might offer verbal praise, a sticker, or stamp on the back of the child’s hand.
- Inter-trial interval. The child might take a break now before applying toothpaste and brushing his/her teeth.
Keeping tasks manageable and praises high will help your child. A therapist can help you set reasonable goals for your child and help you break down each task into steps.
Pivotal Response Training (PRT)
Dr. Robert Koegel, PhD and Dr. Lynn Koegel, PhD, developed PRT. They are a senior researcher and clinical professor, respectively. Pivotal Response Training has three goals. One is to teach language. Two is to decrease disruptive/self-stimulatory behaviors. Three is to increase social, communication, and academic skills. PRT applies evidence-based principles like ABA. It differs in that it does not focus on specific tasks. It reinforces positive behaviors with direct and natural rewards. PRT groups children’s behavior into four categories.
- Responsivity to multiple cues
- Social initiations
By focusing on groups of behaviors, the skills are applicable to many situations. A PRT facilitator will help you and your child set realistic goals. He/she will teach you to incorporate PRT into your family’s routines. Families familiar with DIR/Floortime will notice similarities between the treatments. An article published in Autism Parenting Magazine says PRT uses a naturalistic approach. It does not follow the ‘child and teacher at a table’ model. During PRT, the child is in a structured environment with many play options. The child chooses the toys, activities, and topics of conversation.
PRT should be a part of your child’s daily routine. Its holistic approach makes it appropriate in many settings. Teachers can incorporate in during the school day. Parents and siblings can take part at home. Your child’s willingness to take part in PRT is crucial to the success of the intervention.
Drs. Koegel says that PRT is effective because it works with each child’s natural motivations. PRT stresses functional communication over rote learning. This comprehensive model helps children develop skills they can use. With these timely resources, children with autism can enjoy more positive interactions. They can also communicate better and enjoy higher academic achievement (Koegel & Koegel, 2006).
Pivotal Response Training: A Naturalistic Approach to Applied Behavioral Analysis has more information.
Developmental, Individual Difference, Relationship-Based Approach (DIR)
Developmental, Individual-Difference, Relationship-Based Model (DIR) Floortime is a child-led therapy. A therapist uses the parameters a child sets in play to encourage skill development. The late Dr. Stanley Greenspan developed DIR/Floortime. His model emphasizes using senses, emotions, and motor skills to foster healthy development (About Floortime, 2017). DIR/Floortime is a valuable option because of its adaptive nature. As a child’s interests evolve, so can the therapy.
The therapy requires a lot of the child’s play partner. The Autism Resource Foundation says the ideal partner is patient and imaginative. A therapist conducts DIR/Floortime sessions in his/her office and trains you to conduct them at home. Regular check-ins allow you to ask questions and revise strategies as needed. The therapist helps you identify the play your child responds to most. Play categories include sensory, object, symbolic, or a combination. They will also determine if your child is sensitive sensory seeking or under-reactive (Parents: How to Learn Greenspan Floortime, 2017). Dr. Gil Tippy, PsyD, is the clinical director and founder of the Rebecca School in New York. He encourages parents to explore DIR/Floortime despite the learning curve (Houskeeper, 2015).
To conduct DIR/Floortime, you need to become familiar with your child’s play. Next, you need to make sure your child knows that you want to play on his/her terms. While honoring your child’s style of play, you can incorporate therapeutic techniques. Finally, keep things fresh by rotating toys and activities (Key Take-Aways the nuts and bolts of the Floortime™ session, 2015).
When DIR/Floortime is successful, a child has the opportunity to communicate on his/her terms. Can DIR Floortime Help Kids with Autism Develop Communication Skills? has more information.
Education of Autistic and Related Communication-Handicapped Children
Deciding how to educate your child with autism might feel overwhelming. There are many options and choosing the right one for your child will likely take some trial and error. Some children attend public schools in a mainstream classroom. Another option is a public special education classroom. Special education teachers are knowledgeable about teaching children with autism. Children with autism in public schools need an individualized education plan (IEP).
Private school is another option that usually offers individualized education. Some private schools teach only children with autism. These schools have low student-to-teacher ratios and teachers have specialized training. Scholarships are usually available for families who qualify. Education grants are also available.
Some families choose home education for their children with autism. A parent can teach his/her child or enlist the help of a teacher to work one-on-one with the child in the home. This is an attractive option for families whose child has many appointments.
No matter how you decide to educate your child, you are his/her greatest advocate. Knowing which services are available is the first step in ensuring he/she has his/her needs met. It is no small task, but your efforts will be fruitful as your child learns.
The Picture Exchange Communication System
The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) can be an invaluable resource. Dr. Andy S. Bondy and Lori Frost developed PECS in 1985 for preverbal or nonverbal children. It is ideal for children who express strong preferences and a desire to communicate. PECS is usually used with individuals who are nonverbal. The Indiana Resource Center for Autism (IRCA) is a leading research center. It says PECS is also helpful for people with limited speech. Children who are echolalic or have unintelligible speech are good PECS candidates. It is also appropriate for children who have a small set of meaningful words (Indiana Institute on Disability and Community). It is also an option for children with mobility impairments.
PECS is a collection of picture cards that a child can use to communicate. The cards combine to form sentences, make requests, or have conversations. PECS compliments the visual learning style of most children with autism. Children learn PECS in six phases. First, they receive two or three simple cards. As the child masters PECS, he/she receives more cards with greater visual complexity. The cards should represent different needs, wants, locations, food, play, or emotions. Place them where your child can access them. You can read more about the Benefits of Visual Supports for Children with Autism here.
About Floortime. (2017, March 27). Retrieved February 2018, from https://www.stanleygreenspan.com/resources/about-floortime
Autism Therapies and Treatments You Need to Know. (2018, June 24). Retrieved from https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/best-autism-therapies-and-treatments/
Houskeeper, E. (2015, June 25). About the DIR Floortime Model for Children with Autism | UVM CDE. Retrieved February 2018, from https://learn.uvm.edu/blog-health/dir-floortime-model
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Saad, K., Abdel-Rahman, A. A., Elserogy, Y. M., Al-Atram, A. A., El-Houfey, A. A., Othman, H. A., . . . Abdel-Salam, A. M. (2018, January). Randomized controlled trial of vitamin D supplementation in children with autism spectrum disorder. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27868194
Stenson, J. (2019, September 23). Why the focus of autism research is shifting away from searching for a ‘cure’. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/health/kids-health/cure-autism-not-so-fast-n1055921?fbclid=IwAR0IPDj00lUo6i6GBxtWo6Sk07RrpaDbEBlu15APbQuyQ999QGxsv9BXDTE.
Tovey, A. (2018, June 21). New Research Suggests Vitamin D Benefits Children with Autism. Retrieved from https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/vitamin-d-benefits-children-autism/
What is the Picture Exchange Communication System or PECS? (2002). Retrieved from https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/What-is-the-Picture-Exchange-Communication-System-or-PECS
Autism Parenting Magazine tries to deliver honest, unbiased reviews, resources, and advice, but please note that due to the variety of capabilities of people on the spectrum, information cannot be guaranteed by the magazine or its writers. Medical content, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images, and other material contained within is never intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read within.
Katherine G. Hobbs is a researcher and journalist for Autism Parenting Magazine dedicated to bringing awareness of resources to families affected by autism spectrum disorder. She lives in Florida, where she teaches preschool and elementary-aged children of all abilities. Her passion for autism awareness began as a child in grade school with a dear friend. You can find her online at katherineghobbs.com.