What Is "Autism Therapy?"

Speech therapy
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Most children -- and many adults -- on the autism spectrum receive (at least!) speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and social skills therapy. Quite a few also see therapists for issues such as sleep disorders, eating issues, or sensory processing disorder. Many receive cognitive therapy (otherwise known as counseling) for issues such as mood disorders, anxiety, or depression.

In addition, most younger people with autism also receive a variety of therapies such as Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) and its many offshoots; developmental therapies such as Floortime and RDI; or "biomedical" therapies such as nutritional supplementation, hyperbaric oxygen, and chelation (removal of heavy metals from the body).

Which of these, you may wonder, is "autism therapy?"  Which of these treats autism as a whole?

In fact (surprise!), there is no single therapy or treatment called "autism therapy" That's because:

  • Autism is not a singular disorder which can be treated with a single therapy or pill.  Instead, it is a collection of symptoms which vary significantly from person to person.
  • There are a few known causes of autism, but none of them can be treated with a single therapy or pill. These include prenatal exposure to specific pharmaceuticals and some genetic disorders.
  • In most cases, the cause of autism is not known -- and so, while there are many therapies available to treat the symptoms, there is no  treatment that can be prescribed to cure the disorder.

Doctors rarely refer to commonly-prescribed therapies such as speech, occupational therapy (of the sort intended to improve physical functioning), or physical therapy as "autism therapy," even though those therapies are almost always provided to people with autism.

  That's not because they're ineffective -- in fact, they are usually quite effective in treating specific symptoms of autism.  But they were not developed specifically to treat autism, nor are they designed to cure it.

Similarly, nutritional, cognitive, and pharmaceutical therapies, while they may be helpful in addressing specific symptoms of autism (or associated issues) are rarely called "autism therapy." Like the therapies described above, these are useful for many different disorders; they were not developed for autism in particular.

Most of the time, when people refer to "autism therapy," they are talking about either ABA or about developmental or biomedical treatments that are intended to relieve symptoms most often associated with autism: social and language challenges, repetitive behaviors, and sensory challenges.  Interestingly, though, not even these therapies were initially developed to treat autism!

ABA, the therapy most commonly referred to as "autism therapy," derives from behavior modification -- a very old approach to teaching appropriate behaviors through a system of rewards and consequences. Behavioral therapy has been used for many decades for many purposes. In the last fifty years or so, however, it has been modified and expanded significantly to teach appropriate behaviors to children with autism who, typically, do not learn through imitation or through trial and error.

Developmental therapies (including some forms of occupational and play therapy) were developed to help children with various emotional and developmental issues to engage with others in a positive manner and to build communication and collaboration skills.

Like ABA, developmental therapy has evolved quite a bit over the last few decades to specifically serve the needs of children with autism. Floortime, SCERTS, and RDI are all offshoots of developmental therapy that have been modified and codified for autism treatment.

Sensory integration therapy, which has become more common and popular in recent years, is not an "autism therapy" either.  It's actually an offshoot of occupational therapy which was modified to help individuals (autistic or not) who are over- or under-sensitive to light, sound, smells, and so forth.

Was ANYthing developed solely to treat autism? The answer is yes -- but, perhaps not so surprisingly, the therapies and treatments developed specifically to treat autism tend to be the least well researched, and the most controversial. These range from unique interventions related to vision, hearing, and body chemistry (detox baths, auditory integration, etc.) to interpersonal interventions such as Sonrise, "Rapid Response," and so forth.

Yes, these were developed specifically for treating autism. Few of these therapies have been well researched; none is presently considered to be a mainstream treatment for (or cure for) autism.

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