Autistic disorders cannot be cured, but children who have these disorders can make considerable progress in all areas of life. Depending upon the level of intellectual function, it is possible for some children with autism to become functioning, semi-independent adults capable of working and enjoy some social relationships. Parenting a child with autism can be extremely challenging, however, and many families find support groups to be helpful. Both medication and psychosocial therapies (therapies that address both psychological and social issues) can help ameliorate troubling symptoms. Education is key for helping these children learn socially acceptable behaviors, decreasing odd mannerisms and behaviors, and increasing appropriate verbal and non-verbal language skills.
Most educational programs for children with autistic disorders involve small, specialized classes with teachers specially trained to work with autistic children. Often, these children are educated in special schools that have extended school years rather than lengthy summer vacations. Research has shown that autistic children need regular, daily structure and routine, and they maintain their skills best when there are not frequent disruptions of their daily school program.
One method that has been used extensively both within the classroom and at home is a behavior modification method known as "Applied Behavior Analysis," or ABA. Specially trained teachers break down large goals into small steps that are taught and repeated until the child masters each one. Slowly, step by step, more u appropriate patterns of behavior and communication are s formed or "shaped" in this way. Positive reinforcement 3 is used in many forms such as praise, for those children who are motivated by it, time permitted to engage in a favorite activity, or a small favored food item. For ABA to be most effective, parents need to be trained to use these same skills to continue the work at home.
Although no one drug is helpful to children with autistic disorders, several medications are currently used, along with education, to reduce severe temper tantrums and destructive aggression, self-injurious behaviors, hyperactivity, and strange, repetitive behaviors. Medications may also help the autistic child become more receptive to learning and relating to others. Some of the medications commonly used today include risperidone (Risperdal), and haloperidol (Haldol). Although there are side effects associated with these medications, careful dosing and use of other medications to counteract side effects often enable the autistic child to function more effectively.
One non-conventional and experimental treatment for autism is the use of secretin, a hormone produced in the small intestine that stimulates the pancreas to release sodium bicarbonate and other digestive enzymes. Some researchers think that children with autistic disorders do not produce enough of this hormone, and that the lack of sufficient secretin may be the reason why children with autistic disorders suffer so frequently from digestive problems. There are some reports of treating autistic children with secretin that indicate improvement not only in digestion, but in eye contact, alertness, and the ability to learn.
Another non-conventional, experimental treatment involves Candida albicans, the technical term for a common yeast that is found in the human body. Some scientists believe that an overgrowth of this yeast may cause or worsen autism. Some reports indicate that children treated with anti-yeast medications improve in eye contact, social abilities, language skills, concentration, and sleep, and that they show a reduction in aggressive and hyperactive behavior.
An additional non-conventional treatment being researched for autism is a nutritional supplement, Vitamin B6. Some experts believe that Vitamin B6 holds promise for reducing autistic symptoms and helping autistic children progress in all areas. It may be combined with magnesium and the combination appears to have no known side effects. Improvements attributed to these supplements in some studies include enhanced language, 2 eye-contact, and behaviors, as well as more normal brain £ activity and improved immune system functioning.
.0 These treatments remain outside mainstream medi-
£ cine, however, and research is ongoing as to their efficace cy. Parents interested in these therapies may wish to discuss them with their child's health care team.
The Autism Society of America. 7910 Woodmont Avenue, Suite 300, Bethesda, MD 20814-3015. <http://www.autism-society.org>. Families Working Together. 12400 Cypress Avenue, Space 20,
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