Mild autism treatment plans vary according to the individual's specific needs and strengths. Many treatment approaches that are appropriate for individuals with low functioning autism may not be suitable for people with mild symptoms.
Challenges with Mild Autistic Disorders
The main challenge parents and caretakers face in dealing with mild forms of autism is early identification and intervention. Recognizing the signs of autism can be difficult when the child shows little delay in language development and life skills.
Many people are not familiar with subtle problems in social skills, sensory processing and routines typically associated with high functioning autism. In addition, autism does not manifest physically, and children on the spectrum look "normal." It isn't until the individual fails to follow through with interactions normally that a problem is recognized. Once a proper diagnosis is in place, a treatment plan for mild autism can be developed.
Mild Autism Treatment
Mild autism treatment begins with a consultation with a doctor, developmental specialist, behavior specialist and parents. This team collaborates on an individual treatment plan that clearly outlines short term objectives and long term goals. From there, the team selects interventions and therapies for the treatment plan.
Treatments for mild autism include:
- Behavioral therapy
- Social skills activities
- Speech and occupational therapy
- Sensory Integration
- Other Therapies
Behavioral therapy is the cornerstone for autism interventions and approaches can be adapted to suit a wide range of abilities. Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) may not be the best approach for high functioning children, adolescents or adults but it can be an effective solution for specific problems. ABA treatments break down tasks into doable steps that are mastered in sequential order. Approaches in ABA programs include discreet trials that involve one-to-one exchanges that mimic the give-and-take dynamic in social exchanges. This type of therapy may feel artificial when working with individuals with mild autism because it strips interactions down to a "stimulus-response" format.
Behavioral interventions include strategies for shaping behavior, as is the goal of treatments like ABA. Behaviorally focused interventions typically seek to achieve a desired response from the individual, using positive reinforcement as a guide. Therapists try to downplay undesired behavior by using:
- Planned ignoring or withholding attention
- Verbal, visual or physical prompts
- Immediate consequences for nonnegotiable behaviors
Recognizing that each behavior serves a purpose is very important. All behavior is communication and figuring out the function of the behavior can help. Often, families dealing with mild autism find that as communication improves, so does behavior. Ways to find the function of behavior include:
- Using a behavior chart to track target behaviors
- Noting the time of day, the activity and the people present
- Evaluating the consequences of the behavior
Behavioral interventions are only part of mild autism treatment. Therapies that encourage social interaction can improve behavior while building relationships.
Social Skill Activities
People with mild autism may be able to use words to communicate, often impressing others with rich vocabularies. However, social communication is complex and it involves details that can be difficult for an individual on the autism spectrum to understand. Social skill therapy for high functioning autism may include:
- Reading body language
- Understanding idioms and figurative language
- Maintaining appropriate boundaries
- Answering "wh" questions - who, what, where, when and why
Social skill therapies for autism can be augmented for various levels of functioning.
- Video modeling
- Guided peer interaction
See Teaching Aids to Teach Autistic Kids Social Skills for ideas.
Speech and Occupational Therapy
Speech therapy may be necessary to improve communication and occupational therapy is helpful in developing life skills. Speech exercises include activities that encourage the individual to use words to communicate and strategies address problems in:
- Word retrieval - when an individual knows the word but is unable to articulate it.
- Receptive processing - understanding what is said.
- Expressive processing - the ability to use words to demonstrate understanding.
For example, a person asks a child with mild autism what her address is. The child responds by looking at her shirt and saying, "This is not a dress. It's a shirt." This interaction indicates that the child is processing the last sound that she hears and not the entire sentence. Speech therapy seeks to help the child improve listening skills (receptive processing) and to demonstrate understanding (expressive processing).
Occupational therapy helps individuals on the spectrum develop important skills for everyday activities. This part of the treatment plan sets goals that improve the person's chances of living independently. Occupational therapy run the gamut from fine motor to gross motor activities, depending on the goals of the treatment plan.
Sensory integration can help individuals on the spectrum to process sensory input in the environment. Treatment approaches vary according to the specific problems. In some cases, the individual has a hypoactive sensory system that needs stimulation while another may have a hyperactive sensory system that needs redirecting. This type of therapy can help a person organize behavior while reducing self-stimulatory movements.
Families dealing with autism have many options to consider and an excellent place to find help is What to Do Next on the Autism Speaks website. The site offers a helpful list of autism treatments including biomedical approaches, alternative treatments, medication and dietary interventions.
Treatment should begin with early intervention, before a child reaches school age. Children with mild autism may not receive treatment until they attend public school, especially if the disorder goes unnoticed. Educators may recognize problems in social reciprocation and in the ability to demonstrate understanding.
While early intervention is important, many families find mild autism treatment to be very successful even when introduced later. The family's active involvement in the affected person's treatment plan is a very important aspect of success.