Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or autism, is the term given to the group of neurodevelopmental disorders that are characterised by:

  • Difficulty with social interaction
  • Poor communication skills, and
  • Observed restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behaviour, interests, and activities.

There is no known cause and no known cure. However there are many interventions that focus on improving quality of life and helping children acquire new communication, interaction and daily living skills.

How is autism diagnosed?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV and DSM-5 from May 2013) or the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) can be used by health professionals to diagnose autism.

Various assessment tools are used by health professionals, child psychiatrists and paediatricians to screen for and diagnose autism. In addition to using diagnostic tools, interviews with primary carers, observations of the child and ruling out other possible explanations also takes place. The information that comes from doing this helps health/early intervention professionals work with parents to plan intervention goals.

How common is autism?

In Australia and around the world, an increasing number of children are being diagnosed with autism. An Australian study in 2007 found that 1 in every 160 (1:160) children in Australia aged between 6 and 12 years had been diagnosed with autism. A 2010 report suggested this figure could be as high as 1:100.

What can be done to help children with autism and their families?

There are hundreds of interventions that claim to help children with autism. Some interventions even claim to be able to cure autism. There is currently no cure for autism. Having so much information available, some of it even misleading, is a problem. It makes it confusing for parents when making decisions about which interventions they should try with their child.

It is not easy to understand which information should be believed and which shouldn’t. Some questions to think about are:

    • Has any research tested this intervention? You should be very cautious and reluctant to try any intervention with your child that has not been tested in a research study.
    • What did the research find?  If the research found that children who got the intervention did not improve, then this intervention should not be considered any further for now. This may change if future research finds different results though. If the research found that children who got the intervention improved, then you should ask yourself the question below. You should also look at what the children in the study improved on (e.g. behaviour) and if this is an area where you would like to see an improvement in your child.
    • Was the research of good quality? Unfortunately not all research studies are of good quality. Badly done studies can lead to the wrong conclusion – such as concluding that an intervention is effective (that is, it works), when in fact, it may not. Worse still, it may even cause harm. Telling good quality research from poor quality research is tricky.

It is important that you discuss any intervention you might be considering with your child’s health/ early intervention provider. If you are unsure what questions you should be asking, click here. Likewise, for any intervention that is recommended to you by a health/early intervention provider, ask about the research evidence supporting the intervention.

What if no treatment is chosen?

There is no reliable information available about what happens if no treatment is sought. As autism affects children in different ways, it is difficult to know what possible outcomes may occur for all the different intervention options available. What we do know from the existing evidence is that sometimes there is a need to try a number of interventions before any progress can be seen.

Autism Treatment and Research

The Raising Children Network is an Australian website which was collaboratively developed by a consortium of Australia’s leading early childhood agencies (Smart Population Foundation, Parenting Research Centre and Centre for Community Child Health) and the Australian Government. Its aim is to provide parents with useful, up to date, and accurate information on a range of issues affecting children. The Raising Children Network has collected extensive information on autism, including autism interventions. A rating system based on the National Standards Project (National Autism Center, 2009) was adopted by the Raising Children Network website authors to rate interventions based on whether the research has shown positive effects or is considered ineffective based on lack of evidence or potential to be harmful.

A summary of the most effective interventions are provided on this site.

References:

    • Australian Advisory Board on Autism Spectrum Disorders, Education and Autism Spectrum Disorders in Australia, The provision of appropriate educational services for school-age students with Autism Spectrum Disorders in Australia, Position Paper, Launched Autism Month Australia, April 2010
    • First, M., 1994, Quick Reference to the Diagnostic Criteria from DSM-IV, American Psychiatric Association, Washington, DC
    • First, M., 2008, Autism and Other Pervasive Developmental Disorders Conference (February 3-5, 2008), accessed online 11 September 2010.
    • Green, V., Pituch, K., Itchon, J., Choi, A., O’Reilly, M., @ Sigafoos, J., 2006, Internet survey of treatments used by parents of children with autism, Research in Developmental Disabilities, 27,1.
    • MacDermott, S., Williams, K., Ridley, G., Glasson, E., & Wray, J. (2007). The prevalence of autism in Australia. Can it be established from existing data? Report for the Australian Advisory Board on Autism Spectrum Disorders.
    • Mesibov, G., & Shea, V. 2010, Evidence-Based Practices and Autism, Autism, published online 27 September 2010.
    • National Autism Center, 2009, The National Autism Center’s National Standards Report http://www.nationalautismcenter.org/pdf/NAC%20Standards%20Report.pdf
    • O’Reilly, B. & Smith, S., 2008, Australian Autism Handbook: The essential resource guide for autism spectrum disorders, Jane Curry Publishing, Edgecliff, NSW.
    • Prior, M. & Roberts, J. (2012), Early Intervention for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders: “Guidelines for Good Practice” 2012. (Link http://www.fahcsia.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/11_2012/early_intervention_practice_guidlines.pdf)
    • Szatmari, P., 2011, New recommendations on autism spectrum disorder, BMJ, 342:d2456
    • Valentine, K., 2010, A consideration of medicalisation: choice, engagement and other responsibilities of parents of children with autism spectrum disorder, Social Science & Medicine, 71, 5.
    • Valentine, K., Rajkovic, M., Dinning, B., & Thompson, D., 2010, Occasional Paper No. 35 Post-diagnosis support for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, their families and carers, social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales.
    • Warren, Z., McPheeters, M., Sathe, N., Foss-Feig, J., Glasser, A., & Veenstra-VanderWeele, J., 2011, A systematic review of early intensive intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorders, Pediatrics, 127,5.
    • Warren, Z., Veenstra-VanderWeele, J., Stone, W., Bruzek, J., Nahmias, A., Foss-Feig J., Jerome, R., Krishnaswami, S., Sathe, N., Glasser, A.,Surawicz, T., & McPheeters, M., 2011, Therapies for children with autism spectrum disorders. Comparative Effectiveness Review No. 26. (Prepared by the Vanderbilt Evidence-based practice centre under contract no. 290-2007-10065-1) AHRQ Publication No. 11-EHC029-EF.
      http://www.effectivehealthcare.ahrq.gov/ehc/products/106/656/CER26_Autism_Report_04-14-2011.pdf