There are many therapy options available for children with autism. Some interventions use a combination of approaches, while others are based on one particular approach or theory. Interventions can be categorised based on the type of intervention and the way in which the intervention works to support the child and family.
Comprehensive interventions aim to address a wide range of goal areas, thereby improving skills across multiple domains. Comprehensive models of intervention differ in terms of treatment intensity, theoretical underpinning and treatment style, however the approaches are all comparable in the breadth of goal areas targeted. Comprehensive models can be further categorised into behavioural, developmental and combined interventions.
Behavioural interventions use a structured approach to teaching targeted behaviours and developing skills. These interventions are based on learning theory and encompass a range of teaching techniques. Behavioural interventions are some of the most frequently researched interventions for autism and have the largest body of supporting evidence. Behavioural interventions include:
Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA)
Discrete Trial Training (DTT)
Early Intensive Behavioural Interventions (EIBI)
Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT)
Positive Behaviour Support (PBS)
Interventions in this category aim to build positive relationships between the child and the people around them. These interventions often focus on improving social, communication and daily living skills through everyday teaching moments.
There is some evidence for components of interventions in this category however overall, more, high quality research is required to justify their effectiveness. Interventions in this category include:
Relationship Developmental Intervention
Developmental social-pragmatic model
Combined approaches include components of behavioural and developmental interventions, whilst incorporating information regarding development in typically developing children and children with autism. These interventions often include structured teaching and activities whilst also allowing and incorporating incidental teaching and play-based learning. Combined approaches often use characteristics from a number of interventions which have shown positive outcomes. There is promising evidence for interventions in this category, however results are influenced by the number of hours of intervention delivered, style of intervention delivery, and setting (e.g. clinic, community, or home). Interventions in this category include:
Family-based interventions recognise families as key agents of change in their child’s development. Interventions in this category focus on providing families with the skills to target therapy goals at home with their child. The interventions can be delivered individually or in group sessions, with information, guidance and training provided to families. Some interventions in this category use video-feedback as a tool to support parent learning.
Emerging research on these types of interventions suggests several factors can influence their effectiveness, including parent-therapist relationship, individual child goals, time available for parents to implement therapy, and method of program delivery. Examples of family-based interventions include:
Therapy-Based Interventions involve provision of specific intervention by a qualified therapist to target skills in a given area. Therapy-based interventions are often used in combination with other interventions. These approaches are often provided by Speech Pathologists, Occupational Therapists and/or Psychologists. Evidence for approaches in this category can be highly variable, with significantly more research needed in many areas. Interventions in this category include:
Medication is sometimes used to reduce the severity of some autism-related symptoms such as anxiety, obsessive compulsive behaviours, inattention, or hyperactivity and sleep disorders. Currently, there is no medical treatment for autism, however some medical practitioners may discuss the use of prescription medications to reduce the functional impact of some autism-related symptoms and other conditions that are also often present in individuals with autism.
Many alternative interventions for autism are not supported by evidence and, in some cases, may pose a potential risk to the individual and/or their family. New alternative interventions regularly emerge for treating autism without undergoing rigorous evaluation. When considering interventions, it is important to consider the benefits of the intervention as well as the potential costs (not just financial) and implications. For more information on things to consider when selecting an intervention, see our Evidence Based Practice page where you will find a list of questions to ask potential intervention providers.