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Behavioural approaches in autism spectrum disorders

Currently, there is no treatment that cures autism, but intervention methods provide a way to manage symptoms and offer necessary support to families and carers. Intervention approaches fall into three main categories: behavioural, educational and medical.

The most common type of behavioural therapy is Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) which works to reinforce positive behaviour using a stimulus-response-reward technique. Usually, an ABA therapist would work on a one-to-one basis with an autistic child, observing and evaluating their behaviour to put together a program adapted to their specific needs. ABA is particularly effective at developing fundamental skills in communication, attention and social interaction.

Children with ASD often have additional educational needs. Some may need to attend a specialist school or be educated at home whereas others can attend a mainstream school but usually require extra support during lesson time. Most schools adopt the TEACHH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication handicapped Children) program which provides children with a structured teaching environment. It focuses on organised and predictable activities with a clear set of instructions along with visual supports such as cue cards.

Medication can’t be used directly to treat autism, but it can be helpful in controlling associated symptoms such as hyperactivity and obsessive behaviour. For example, drugs that inhibit the hormone serotonin can be used to treat obsessive-compulsiveness and anxiety, whereas anti-psychotic medications may decrease hyperactivity and minimise withdrawal from society. However, some medications are associated with side-effects and the long-term use of prescribed drugs, particularly in children, is controversial.

Treating ASD depends considerably upon individual circumstances. For some, a single approach works most effectively, whereas for others a combination of treatments may be more appropriate. Whatever the situation, any approach should be thoroughly researched and adapted to an individual’s needs, providing them with the best possible opportunities for learning and discovering their potential.

Ruth Milne is a PhD student in the Centre for Integrative Physiology

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