Alphabet Soup: ABA. DTT. PRT. RDI. DIR.

These are just a few of the acronyms for a growing number of treatments used with individuals with autism.  If you recently received a diagnosis for your child you may have searched the internet and found a bewildering array of possibilities. Even if it has been years since your child’s diagnosis, you probably hear about new treatments and wonder if you should give them a try.

Just what are these treatments and what do they purport to do for your child?

In the next few weeks, we’ll provide information on a number of methods ranging from more widely known and accepted treatments such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), those that seem to fall under the umbrella of a “biomedical” approach such as medications and special diets, and then a word or two on other complementary and alternative interventions that are less commonly used in mainstream medicine.

The two most common ways treatments for autism are categorized are 1) by type of treatment (e.g., behavioral, biomedical) and 2) amount of empirical support, meaning how much research has been done on the treatment. Making sense of this information can be challenging. Here are some of the general types of autism treatment. These have varying degrees of research support, which we will be reviewing in greater detail in our upcoming series.

Behavioral Interventions: These interventions are based on the science of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and are often referred to in the autism community as ABA. They can take on many different forms, such as being highly structured therapies (e.g., discrete trial training; DTT) or being more naturalistic (e.g., pivotal response training; PRT).

Developmentally-Based Interventions: These interventions are based on principles of child development and do not necessarily incorporate ABA strategies. Examples include the Developmental Individual Difference Relationship Based Model (DIR® and Floortime™), Relationship Development Intervention (RDI), and some preschool programs. Some programs incorporate both behavioral and developmental principles together (e.g., Early Start Denver Model).

Mental Health Treatments: These interventions are widely used in the treatment of mental health disorders, including autism. Examples include cognitive behavioral therapy and behavior therapy, which also use principles of ABA.

Other Therapies: There are many other therapies used in autism, such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, social skills interventions, and more.

Biomedical Treatments: Biomedical treatments include interventions aimed at targeting symptoms of autism through biological or medical interventions. These might include psychiatric medications, dietary changes and nutritional supplements. Some biomedical treatments are considered “mainstream” by the medical community (e.g., psychiatric medications), while others are considered complementary and alternative.

Complementary and Alternative Treatments: Some biomedical treatments are considered complementary and alternative (e.g., special diets); however, this category also includes many other treatments that do not have strong research support at this time. Examples include pet/animal therapies, acupuncture, music/art therapies, chelation, and many others. As some of these treatments can have risks (e.g., chelation) they should always be carefully considered with advice from a medical professional. We will discuss these issues in greater detail in a future post in this series. 

After reviewing treatments from these categories in our future blog posts, we will end the series with recommendations on evaluating the options and choosing a good fit for your child and your family. We invite you to share your experience with treatments– what has worked for your child? What hasn’t? Who/what helped you decide what was best?

As always, please remember that our review of any treatment should not be considered clinical advice. Please work with your child’s doctors and intervention providers to determine what treatments will be most useful in your case.