How To Treat Autism

Reviewed by:
Hannah Andreasen

August 9, 2022

Autism looks different for each individual, so there isn’t one single treatment that will work for everyone. The best treatments will focus on individual needs and not just a diagnostic label. 

People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have the best chance of using all of their abilities by receiving early and appropriate interventions. The right treatment should minimize symptoms and maximize abilities.

Types of autism treatment

There are several approaches to treatment for autism, but some autism therapies may involve more than one type of approach. 


This approach has the most evidence for treating ASD. It focuses on changing behavior based on what happens before and after by reinforcing desired behavior and teaching functional replacements for undesired behaviors. 

An example of a behavioral approach is applied behavior analysis (ABA). This treatment encourages desired behaviors and discourages undesired behaviors, improving a variety of skills with close tracking and monitoring. ABA can help children learn new skills and then generalize these skills for different situations through reward-based motivation. There are several types of ABA, including:

  • Pivotal Response Training (PRT)
  • Discrete Trial Teaching (DTT)
  • Early Start Denver Model (ESDM)

Pivotal Response Training (PRT)

PRT is a naturalistic, loosely structured intervention that relies on naturally occurring teaching opportunities and consequences. 

PRT doesn’t just focus on one specific behavior. Instead, it focuses on four pivotal areas of the child’s development:

  • Motivation
  • Child self-initiation
  • Self-management
  • Responsiveness to multiple cues

Discrete Trial Teaching (DTT)

DTT is based on mastering skills through practice. The child is taught a behavior using one-on-one instruction. The child is guided through a behavior that is broken down into small or “discrete” steps. The child is rewarded when the task or behavior is performed correctly, and incorrect responses are ignored. The behavior is repeated in what is known as a drill until the child learns how to successfully complete the task. 

Early Start Denver Model (ESDM)

ESDM is based on ABA therapy and techniques from Pivotal Response Training (PRT) for children aged 12 to 48 months. ESDM uses play, social exchanges, and shared attention in natural settings to improve language, social, and learning skills. 

ESDM uses understanding of brain development and behavior to provide children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) the social skills that will help them to learn to communicate and build relationships throughout their life. 


The developmental approach is commonly combined with a behavioral approach and focuses on developing a particular skill. Many therapies fall under the developmental approach.  

Speech and language therapy

Speech and language therapy is one of the most common therapies. It focuses on improving the child’s ability to communicate and interact with others. 

It includes both verbal skills and nonverbal skills. For verbal skills, the speech therapist will work on improving the child’s understanding and use of language. For nonverbal communication, the therapist may focus on sign language or the use of pictures and symbols for communication. 

Goals for speech and language therapy might include:

  • Strengthening the muscles of the face, neck, and jaw
  • Making clear speech enunciation
  • Matching facial expressions to emotions
  • Reading body language
  • Using appropriate voice tone and volume 


Occupational therapies teach personal care skills to help a person live as independently as possible. Occupational therapy helps to improve everyday skills by working on cognitive, physical, social, and motor skills. 

Some of the skills that may be taught are:

  • Eating
  • Bathing
  • Dressing
  • Relating to people 
  • Sensory integration therapy

Physical therapy

Many individuals with ASD have problems with movement. Physical therapy focuses on activities that build motor skills and improve balance, strength, and posture. Improving physical and motor skills makes playing easier for a child with ASD. Physical therapy involves fine motor skills (like using hands and fingers) and large motor skills (like using the torso).


This approach is provided in a classroom setting. Children with autism are provided appropriate guidance under federal laws. 

There are many common classroom accommodations for students with autism, including:

  • Classroom aides
  • Use of visual cues
  • Minimizing distractions
  • Incorporating alternative media
  • Use of assistive technology

One method is called Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children (TEACCH) and is based on consistency and visual learning.


The social-relational approach improves a child’s social skills and builds emotional relationships by involving parents and peer mentors. Some skills that this approach focuses on include:

  • Conversation
  • How to handle teasing
  • Being a good sport
  • Showing good host behavior during play dates 

Social skills training programs can allow a child to practice social skills in a more structured environment. There are several strategies: 

  • The Developmental, Individual Differences, Relationship-Based Model is also known as “floor time.” This method involves the parent or therapist following the interest of the individual to expand opportunities for communication. 
  • The Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) involves activities that increase motivation, interest, and ability to participate in shared social interactions.
  • Social stories are simple descriptions of what to expect in a social situation.

Social skills groups allow children to practice social skills in a structured environment.

Complementary and Alternative 

Treatments that do not fit neatly into any of the above categories are known as complementary and alternative. These approaches can be an impactful part of the treatment plan for autism when used alongside other treatment options.

 Some examples of complementary and alternative treatments for autism are:

  • Diet and nutrition
  • Animal therapy
  • Art and music therapy
  • Mindfulness


The number of treatments available to treat autism can be overwhelming. Talk to your health care provider to find the best treatment option for your specific needs. 

‍Songbird Therapy is a technology-enabled provider setting a higher standard for children’s autism care. With a deeply passionate team and innovative technology, we’re building a world where every child can access world-class care at home, uniquely tailored to them.