Chasing After Autism Therapies that Work

Autism therapies come in many forms but few have been tested or shown to be effective

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Parents of kids with autism know there are many different treatment options and many different sources of information. Making decisions about which treatment is best can be hard.

Researchers recently reviewed the published studies on a variety of autism treatments. They found that programs to teach learning strategies, like applied behavioral analysis, are the only ones that have been studied enough to say they work. Other treatments, like diet restrictions and some school programs, just haven’t been studied enough to know whether they work or not.

The authors suggested that the lack of research makes choosing good autism treatments hard for parents. In addition, the lack of research on many treatments may also mean that the parents may waste time and money on therapies that don’t work.

"Ask a psychiatrist which autism therapies are right for your child."

The authors of the review, led by Johnny L. Matson, PhD, of Louisiana State University, looked over the research for autism treatments and discussed how people choose therapies.

In the United States, government agencies have made a push for early interventions for kids with autism. This push has led to many new therapies but most of them have not been proven effective. However, these therapies may claim to work, so parents can have trouble choosing.

Parents are likely to use word of mouth, the Internet and other sources of unverified information when making decisions. Websites (even some advocacy websites) use testimonials and parent reports to support therapies that have not been well studied. Testimonials can sway parents because they show how a therapy worked for a few children, which does not mean the therapy will work for many.

Additionally, many healthcare professionals do not know what works and what does not. So many doctors do not have enough information to properly advise parents about treatments.

According to the authors of this review, the only treatment methods that have solid support for their effectiveness are conditioning and social learning methods. Conditioning methods include programs like applied behavioral analysis.

Many other types of therapies, like school programs, dietary restriction or supplements and chelation, have not been studied enough to show whether or not they are effective. Many of these therapies are expensive for families. Some of them can even be dangerous, including chelation therapy.

Research shows that most kids are treated with more than one intervention at any given time – including diet, medicines, behavioral programs, cognitive therapies and dietary supplements.

Using these interventions all at once can make it hard for parents, doctors and researchers to know which ones actually work. There is little evidence for most single treatments, and there is even less research on the risks or benefits of combining treatments.

Autism therapies are also dependent on parent’s adherence to programs. Some studies have reported that between 25 and 35 percent of parents do not follow the intervention requirements at home. Some research has shown that parents' negative attitudes about the effectiveness of the treatment influences their decisions to follow a program at home.

Parents need to believe the treatment will help in order to be motivated to adhere to the program. But without parent adherence, science cannot determine which treatments will work.

The authors concluded that there is a divide between popular information and evidence-based information. This divide may make it hard for caregivers, teachers, parents and doctors to know which therapy to choose.

The authors said, “This lack of knowledge penetration about what works and what does not work is currently one of the greatest challenges in the field. Furthermore, barriers such as cost, availability, and parental compliance have significant effects on successful and effective treatment administration.”

This review was published in the March issue of Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. Information on funding and conflicts of interest was not provided with the article.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
February 12, 2013
Last Updated:
February 14, 2013