Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and autism are terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development that affects about 1 in 88 children according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Though scientist can't be sure what causes autism, much evidence points to genetics and problems with the function, interaction, and mutation of certain genes. Research also shows that environmental factors like viruses may also make a person more susceptible to the disorder.

Cognitive and emotional disabilities-especially difficulties with verbal communication and a tendency toward repetitive behavior-as well as health issues including gastrointestinal disturbances and sleeping difficulties are often associated with ASD. On the positive side, some children also have unique visual skills and excel in music, math, and art.

There is no cure for autism but today's autistic children and their families benefit from a vast amount of knowledge acquired through research, a variety of support services, and several different types of treatment therapy. Licensed psychologist, Travis Thompson, PhD-an expert in the field of autism-shared his knowledge and insights with Quality Health.

"We've come a long way since the 50s and 60s when children with autism wound up living out their days sadly in state institutions," says Thompson, explaining how the thinking about ASD has changed. "With the right treatment and educational methods and a skilled autism specialist, about 50 percent of these kids can function with everyone else in a regular or special education classroom.  And only 5 to 10 percent of the autistic population shows little to no improvement at all."

Early Intervention Is Key
Around the age of two, autistic children can begin receiving some form of therapy either at home or in a pre-school school setting. According to Thompson, there is ample that evidence various behavioral interventions effectively reverse or eliminate many of the symptoms of autism.  "Success will be realized when the treatment is tailored to the child's particular mix of strengths, weaknesses, and needs," he says.

Having supportive family members is also essential. "Parents who are able to put in the time to work with their child over the course of one to three years will see enormous improvement," says Thompson.

Although the National Research Council recommends that children with autism receive 25 hours of structured intervention per week during the preschool period, Thompson says those hours can vary. "For children with moderate to severe symptoms, 25 to 30 hours per week may be necessary but for those with milder symptoms, 15 to 20 hours-even less-may be sufficient."

The jargon associated with autism can be confusing. For many forms of early autism intervention, such as those labeled ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis), DTT (Discreet Trial Training), VB (Verbal Behavior), and parts of blended interventions such as PRT (Pivotal Response Treatment) and Denver Early Start ESDM, the basic underlying principles are largely the same. "Each of these methods differ mainly in the degree to which similar principles are conducted at home vs. high-structured situations and in the degree of adult vs. child-directed intervention," Thompson explains. Some of the newer methods, like EDSM, SCERTS (Social Communication Emotional Regulation Transactional Support), and Pivotal Response training combine behavioral and developmental approaches.

Other interventions are based on cognitive developmental psychology and attachment theory and use different principles to guide intervention, such as TEACCH (Training and Education of Autistic and related Communication Handicapped Children), RDI, and Floortime. "In general, fewer studies have been conducted evaluating these treatments among young children with autism, though some evidence is promising," Thompson says.

Speech-language therapy, one-on-one or small group intervention, and parent-delivered intervention are other examples. "Some parents choose to supplement this basic core of services with occupational therapy, physical therapy, adapted physical education, and other recreation/leisure services," Thompson explains.

In many public schools, specially trained masters degree-level teachers with expertise in autism and ABA supervise intervention. "In many homes and other community settings, board-certified behavior analysts or licensed psychologists with training in applied behavior analysis write, implement, and monitor the child's individualized program," he says. "Often, behavior therapists supervised by a licensed or certified person work directly with the child on a day-to-day basis."

Thompson admits that parenting autistic children can be extremely challenging. "Autistic kids can't read social cues and don't understand how to use language. As a result, they are easily frustrated and become aggressive towards themselves and others because they don't know how else to express themselves," he explains. "But parents can learn how to communicate with their child as the child learns to behave more appropriately."

For more information on different treatment options, visit



Interview with Travis Thompson, PhD
Licensed psychologist and autism expert

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

 National Institutes of Health

Autism Speaks

The Autism Society