Choosing Effective Treatments for Children with Autism

By Harchick, Alan; Ladew, Patricia | The Exceptional Parent, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Choosing Effective Treatments for Children with Autism


Harchick, Alan, Ladew, Patricia, The Exceptional Parent


As the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) continues to skyrocket in both civilian and military families, so do the number of treatment options. Through the media and the Internet, parents of children with an ASD learn about many different types of procedures to treat autism and related disorders. Wanting to do everything possible for their sons and daughters, they will often try a number of different therapies and treatments.

After their son, Cameron, was diagnosed with autism at age three and a half, Army Master Sergeant Larry Carter and his wife, Christal, made it their mission to learn all they could about the best treatments for a child with autism. In the past four years, they have tried a number of different therapies with varying degrees of success.

"We talked to other parents, read books, researched on the Internet, took courses, attended conferences, and watched autism specials on TV," Christal told us during a recent interview. "It was quite a hodgepodge. There is no one resource for information about autism."

The Carters have worked with many different physicians, therapists, and consultants and have tried a variety of treatments-speech and occupational therapy, hippotherapy (using equine movement to address neurological functioning and sensory processing), aquatic therapy, chelation (using drugs to remove heavy metals from the body), and biomedical therapies such as a gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) diet and vitamin B12 injections-all in an effort to reduce Cameron's problem behaviors that included spitting, biting, kicking, scratching, and hair-pulling.

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"We were doing so many things at one time; it's hard to know which did what," commented Christal. "You're scared to eliminate anything because you don't want to see regression." When they needed help with Cameron's toilet training, they turned to a program that utilized applied behavior analysis (ABA), a methodology that relies on research-based interventions to address skill deficits and behavioral problems. After seeing the successful outcome of ABA in the development of this particular skill, they arranged for Cameron to receive regular ABA therapy.

Seek Evidence of Effectiveness

It is not uncommon for families to take an eclectic approach as they search for the best treatments for their children. Although this may seem like a way to take advantage of the best aspects of every therapy, this approach often assumes that all treatments for autism are equal. Unfortunately, they are not. Some have evidence showing their effectiveness and others do not.

Fortunately for the Carter family, their approach led them to ABA, which has far more research support than any other treatment or therapy for children with autism. ABA therapists use positive reinforcement, teaching in small steps, prompting, and repeated practice to facilitate language development, improve behavior, develop social skills, and support independent living.

For Cameron's May Institute ABA therapist, Jocelyn Priester, MS, BCBA, the Carters' multi-therapy approach presented some challenges. "We noticed an increase in problem behavior when Cameron was going through chelation," says Jocelyn. "The doctor had told his mom to expect that. Because it's an internal event (the chelation) that I couldn't control, I would just do the best behavior management I could. We had behavioral goals in place, so I worked on those."

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Jocelyn also worked with Christal, Larry, and Cameron's sister, Caitlyn, recommending things they could do at home to support his ABA therapy, including how to encourage full speech. The family is very pleased with the results.

"With ABA, we saw a huge increase with language," says Christal. "Cameron had words...but he wasn't using full sentences. His therapists required him to speak in sentences and showed us how to do it, too! …

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