What are the treatments for autism?

There is no known treatment to cure or reverse autism. Treatments aim to improve symptoms and accommodate the needs of autistic individuals within society. A multidisciplinary approach involves educational programming, speech therapy, social skills training, physical therapy, occupational therapy, parent counseling and nutritional guidance. Early intervention with intensive therapy programs may reduce the severity of deficits in some cases; however, studies regarding their efficacy are limited due to methodological problems (e.g., unclear criteria for what constitutes “autistic” vs. typical behavior). Pharmacological treatments include psychopharmacological drugs, behavioral modification and dietary supplements. Clinical trials of pharmacological treatments are in early stages due to ethical considerations of administering placebo controls for products that have known risks (e.g., antipsychotics) or unknown effects on the developing brain.

Below are some representative clinical trials.

Some parents have reported improvement — anecdotally or with small studies not confirmed by larger follow-up investigations — in treating ASD symptoms with dietary supplements such as vitamin B6, magnesium, zinc, chelation therapy with EDTA, dimethylglycine (DMG), secretin injections into the stomach through an endoscope placed in a child’s mouth or nose, exclusion diets to eliminate allergens from the child’s diet, and other dietary supplements. However, a study by the Federal Trade Commission of claims that dietary supplements could cure autism found no proof to back those claims.

Some children have been treated with medications such as clonidine (an antihypertensive), naltrexone (an opiate antagonist), fluvoxamine (a serotonin uptake inhibitor), selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or with drugs that affect dopamine levels. Although there are reports that some of these medications may reduce self-abusive behavior in children with autism, there is no evidence they can improve language or social skills. There are known risks associated with the use of antipsychotic medications in young children for non-psychotic behavioral disorders, including an increased risk of obesity and diabetes.

Clinical trials are underway to study drugs that affect the immune system to treat ASD symptoms. Some parents have reported improvement in their child’s symptoms after treatment with intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG), plasmapheresis or plasma exchange, but there is no scientific evidence that these treatments are effective. Other therapies being studied for autism include hyperbaric oxygen therapy, chelation to decrease heavy metal body load, electromagnetic stimulation using transcranial magnetic stimulators to decrease cortical inhibition in selective brain areas, auditory overstimulation training to reduce secondary sensory sensitivities. There is also preliminary evidence for drug treatment of serotonin receptor agonists and antagonists as well as anabolic steroids.