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The Latest Research and Developments in Autism Treatment

It is estimated that more than one in 100 people are on the autism spectrum and there are around 700,000 adults and children with autism in the UK. Autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a developmental disorder that affects communication, behaviour and social interaction. It is called a spectrum disorder because it manifests differently in each individual and can range from mild to severe. It is a neurodiverse condition that impacts the way you think and respond to the world around you. Neurodivergence is the term for when someone’s brain processes, learns or behaves differently from what is considered to be typical. Being autistic does not mean you have an illness or disease. It means your brain works in a different way from other people and it is something you are born with. 

If you have autism you may:

  • Find it difficult to communicate or interact with other people.
  • Find eye contact difficult.
  • Come across as being blunt, rude or not interested in other people without meaning to.
  • Find it hard to understand or empathise with how other people think or feel.
  • Find things like bright lights, unusual textures or loud noises overwhelming, stressful or uncomfortable.
  • Notice small details, patterns, smells or noises that others do not notice.
  • Become anxious or upset in unfamiliar situations.
  • Enjoy the same routine every day and become anxious if it changes.
  • Have highly focused interests or hobbies.
  • Like to plan things carefully before doing them.
  • Take longer to understand or process information.
  • Have repetitive behaviours or thoughts.
  • Find it hard to say how you feel.
Signs of autism

Signs of autism in young children can include:

  • Not responding when you call their name.
  • Avoiding eye contact.
  • Not smiling back when you smile at them.
  • Getting very upset if they do not like a certain taste, smell or sound.
  • Repetitive movements, such as flapping their hands, or rocking their body.
  • Repetitive sounds.
  • Not talking as much as other children.
  • Not enjoying pretend play as much as other children their age do.

Autistic people often have other conditions, such as:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Dyslexia
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Epilepsy

The current state of autism treatment

There isn’t one specific treatment for autism. This is because people experience different symptoms and the condition can range from mild to severe. There are many ways to help to minimise the symptoms and help people to reach their full potential. People who have autism have the best chance of using all of their abilities and skills if they receive appropriate therapies and interventions best suited to them. As there can be overlap in symptoms between ASD and other disorders, such as ADHD, it is important that treatment focuses on a person’s specific needs rather than their diagnosis of autism.

Some common approaches used in treating autism include:

  • Behavioural therapies – behavioural therapies, such as Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), are widely used to help people with autism learn new skills, improve communication and their social interactions, and reduce challenging behaviours. ABA therapy involves breaking down desired behaviours into smaller steps and using positive reinforcement in order to encourage their repetition.
  • Speech therapy – many people with autism experience difficulties with their speech and language. Speech therapy can help to improve communication skills.
  • Occupational therapy – occupational therapy focuses on developing everyday life skills, such as fine motor skills, self-care routines and sensory integration. People with autism may benefit from occupational therapy in order to improve their independence and ability to participate in daily activities.
  • Educational support – people with autism often benefit from a specialised educational programme which is tailored to their unique needs but often within a mainstream setting.
  • Alternative therapies – some families explore alternative therapies such as dietary interventions, sensory-based therapies or animal-assisted therapy. It is essential to consult with your healthcare provider if you are considering an alternative therapy.
Genetic and biological insights

Genetic and biological insights

While the exact causes of autism are still not fully understood, research in genetics and biology has provided valuable insights into its underlying mechanisms. Some of the key genetic and biological insights related to autism include:

  • Heritability – autism has a genetic component. Heritability estimates typically range from 70% to 90%. This suggests that genetic factors do play a significant role in the development of autism.
  • Rare genetic variants – some people with autism carry rare genetic variants, such as copy number variations or single nucleotide variants, which can disrupt normal brain development. These variants often occur spontaneously in the affected person and are not inherited from parents.
  • Common genetic variants – genome-wide association studies have identified common genetic variants associated with an increased risk of autism. While each individual variant may have a small effect, collectively they contribute to the overall risk of having autism.
  • Gene expression and regulation – dysregulation of gene expression, including alterations in the expression of genes involved in neuronal development, synaptic function and immune response, has been identified in autism.

Some of the biological pathways which have been linked to autism include:

  • Neuronal development – disruptions in neuronal development have been observed in people with autism. Neuronal development refers to the process by which nerve cells, or neurons, are formed, grow and differentiate to create the intricate neural networks that make up the nervous system. This process begins during embryonic development.
  • Immune system dysfunction – increasing evidence suggests that immune system dysregulation, including inflammation and abnormal immune responses, may play a role in the pathophysiology of autism.
  • Neurotransmitter imbalance – imbalances in neurotransmitter systems, such as serotonin, dopamine and glutamate, have been observed in autism and may contribute to the behavioural and cognitive symptoms of the disorder.
  • Epigenetic mechanisms – epigenetic modifications, which regulate gene expression without changing the underlying DNA sequence, have been implicated in autism and may mediate the interaction between genetic and environmental factors.

Brain structure and function:

  • Structural abnormalities – neuroimaging studies have revealed structural differences in the brains of people with autism, including alterations in brain size, cortical thickness, white matter integrity, and connectivity patterns.
  • Functional connectivity – altered functional connectivity within and between brain networks involved in social cognition, language and executive function has been observed in people with autism, which may underlie the characteristic symptoms of the disorder.
  • Brain overgrowth – some studies have reported early brain overgrowth in children with autism, suggesting abnormal patterns of brain development during early childhood.

Environmental influences:

  • While genetic factors play a significant role in autism, environmental influences, such as prenatal and perinatal factors, exposure to toxins, maternal immune activation, and early life experiences, may also contribute to the risk of developing autism, particularly in people with a genetic predisposition.
Early intervention advances

Early intervention advances

Early intervention for autism has seen significant advances in recent years, with a growing emphasis on identifying and addressing developmental concerns as early as possible. Some key advancements in early intervention for autism include:

  • Early screening and diagnosis – one of the most crucial advancements is the development and implementation of effective screening tools for identifying autism in very young children. Tools like the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) and the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) have improved the ability to diagnose autism in toddlers and even infants.
  • Early behavioural interventions – evidence-based behavioural interventions such as Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), and Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT) have been developed specifically for young children with autism. These interventions target core areas of impairment such as social communication, language development and repetitive behaviours, and have been shown to improve outcomes when started early.
  • Parent-mediated interventions – there has been a shift towards involving parents and caregivers more directly in intervention programmes. Parent-mediated interventions empower parents to implement strategies and techniques at home to support their child’s development. This approach recognises the important role parents play in their child’s early development and encourages active participation in intervention programmes.
  • Technological advances – technology has played an increasingly important role in early intervention for autism. Mobile applications, virtual reality tools, and telehealth services have been developed to deliver interventions remotely, making services more accessible to families in rural or underserved areas.
  • Individualised treatment plans – recognising that autism is a spectrum disorder, there is a move towards developing individualised treatment plans that address the specific needs and strengths of each child. This personalised approach considers factors such as cognitive abilities, sensory sensitivities and comorbid conditions to tailor interventions to the unique profile of each child with autism.
  • Early intervention legislation and policy – many countries have implemented legislation and policies in order to support early intervention services for children with developmental disabilities, including autism. These policies aim to ensure that all children and families have access to early intervention services, including screening, diagnosis and evidence-based interventions.
  • Research into early biomarkers and predictors – ongoing research is focused on identifying early biomarkers and predictors of autism that can facilitate even earlier identification and intervention. Advances in genetics, neuroimaging and other fields may ultimately lead to the development of targeted interventions that can be implemented before the full onset of symptoms.

Pharmacological research

Pharmacological research in autism is a rapidly evolving field which is aimed at identifying effective treatments in order to alleviate symptoms and improve the quality of life for people with autism. This includes:

  • Targeted symptom management – researchers are investigating medications in order to address specific symptoms commonly associated with autism, such as repetitive behaviours, hyperactivity, aggression, anxiety and depression. This may include things like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) which may be prescribed to manage anxiety and depression in people with autism.
  • Oxytocin therapy – oxytocin, which is often referred to as the ‘love hormone’, has been studied for its potential to improve social functioning and communication in people with autism. Research is ongoing in order to determine the effectiveness of intranasal oxytocin administration as a treatment option.
  • Glutamatergic agents – dysfunction in the glutamatergic system has been implicated in autism. Therefore, medications targeting glutamate receptors, such as NMDA receptor modulators, are being investigated for their potential to improve cognitive function and reduce repetitive behaviours in people with autism.
  • Immunomodulatory therapies – some researchers hypothesise that immune dysregulation may play a role in the development of autism symptoms. Immunomodulatory therapies, including medications that target immune pathways or reduce inflammation, are being investigated for their potential to alleviate the symptoms of autism.
  • Mitochondrial dysfunction treatments – mitochondrial dysfunction has been observed in some people with autism, leading researchers to explore medications and supplements that may support mitochondrial function and improve energy metabolism in brain cells.
  • Early intervention and preventive strategies – as already discussed in this article, researchers are also focusing on identifying pharmacological interventions that may be effective in early childhood to prevent or mitigate the development of autism symptoms in at-risk individuals.
Behavioural and therapeutic approaches

Behavioural and therapeutic approaches

Behavioural and therapeutic approaches are a variety of techniques and strategies usually used in psychology and counselling in order to address mental health issues, modify behaviour and improve overall wellbeing. There are several behavioural and therapeutic approaches which are commonly used to support people with autism. 

These include:

  • Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) – ABA is a widely used therapeutic approach that focuses on understanding and changing behaviour. It involves breaking down complex behaviours into smaller components and using reinforcement techniques in order to teach new skills and reduce the occurrence of challenging behaviours. ABA is often used to teach communication, social, academic and daily living skills. It can be delivered in various settings, including clinics, schools and homes.
  • Speech and language therapy – many people with autism experience difficulties with communication, including speech and language. Speech and language therapy aims to improve communication skills, including speech production, language comprehension and social communication. Therapists may use various techniques such as visual supports, augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices, and social stories in order to support language development.
  • Occupational therapy (OT) – occupational therapists work with people with autism in order to develop skills needed for daily living, including self-care, fine motor skills, sensory processing and social skills.
  • Sensory integration therapy – this helps people regulate their responses to sensory input, which can be challenging for many people with autism.
  • Social skills training – social skills training focuses on teaching people with autism the social skills necessary to navigate social interactions and relationships. This may include recognising facial expressions, understanding social cues, initiating and maintaining conversations, and developing friendships. Group-based interventions are often used to provide opportunities for practising social skills in a supportive environment.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – CBT aims to help people with autism identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviours. It can be particularly useful for managing anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive behaviours, and other mental health conditions that may co-occur with autism.
  • DIR – DIR (Developmental, Individual Differences, Relationship-based) is an intervention approach that focuses on promoting emotional and cognitive development through playful interactions. It emphasises following the child’s lead, building relationships and supporting developmental milestones at the child’s own pace.

Technology and autism

The effectiveness of technology-based interventions can vary depending on the individual’s needs, preferences and level of functioning. Additionally, technology should always be used in conjunction with other forms of support and intervention which should be tailored to the individual’s unique strengths and challenges. Technology has played a significant role in helping people with autism. Some of the ways in which technology has been beneficial include:

  • Communication tools – many people with autism struggle with verbal communication. Technology offers alternative communication methods such as augmentative and alternative communication devices, speech-generating devices, or communication apps. These tools allow people with autism to express themselves effectively.
  • Educational resources – there are a number of educational apps and software designed specifically for people with autism. These tools can help in teaching various skills, including language, social and academic skills. They often use visual aids and have an interactive element.
  • Social skills development – social skills can be challenging for some people with autism. Technology provides platforms for social skills training and social interaction in a controlled and comfortable environment. Virtual reality applications, social skills training apps and online communities can help people practise social interactions and improve their overall social skills.
  • Sensory integration – many people with autism have sensory sensitivities. Technology can offer sensory integration tools such as sensory apps, sensory toys, or wearable devices designed to provide sensory input or help people regulate their sensory experiences.
  • Assistive technology – there are various assistive technologies which can assist people with autism with daily living activities. This includes tools for time management, organisation, task completion and sensory regulation. Wearable devices, smart home technology and reminder apps are examples of assistive technology that can support people with autism.
  • Behavioural intervention – technology is also used in behavioural intervention programmes for people with autism. Applied Behaviour Analysis therapy often incorporates technology-based tools for behaviour tracking, reinforcement and data analysis, making therapy more effective and efficient.
  • Remote support and telehealth – technology has made it possible to provide remote support and telehealth services to people with autism, especially in areas with limited access to specialised services. Tele-therapy sessions, online consultations and remote monitoring tools enable professionals to provide support and intervention remotely.

Personalised medicine

Personalised medicine for autism is an emerging field that aims to tailor treatments and interventions to individuals based on their unique genetic, biological and behavioural profiles. Personalised medicine aims to tailor medical decisions and treatments to the specific characteristics of each patient. 

Some of the key aspects of personalised medicine in autism include:

  • Genomic profiling – genetic testing can identify specific genetic variations associated with autism. Advances in genomic technologies, such as whole-genome sequencing and microarray analysis, have enabled researchers to identify hundreds of genetic risk factors for autism.
  • Biomarker identification – researchers are actively searching for biomarkers that can help predict someone’s response to treatments or to identify subtypes of autism.
  • Targeted therapies – personalised medicine aims to match individuals with autism to treatments that are most likely to be effective for them.
  • Early intervention – early identification of autism and initiation of personalised interventions are crucial for optimising outcomes. Personalised medicine approaches may involve early developmental screening, genetic testing and interventions targeted at specific developmental domains affected by autism.
  • Lifestyle and environmental factors – personalised medicine considers not only genetic factors but also environmental influences on autism risk and treatment response. Factors such as prenatal exposures, dietary interventions and environmental toxins may interact with genetic susceptibilities to influence autism outcomes.
  • Data integration and artificial intelligence – analysing large datasets of genetic, clinical and environmental information using artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques can help to identify patterns and subtypes of autism, predict treatment responses and develop personalised treatment plans.
  • Family-centred care – personalised medicine in autism recognises the importance of involving families and caregivers in treatment decision-making. Understanding the unique needs, preferences and priorities of people with autism and their families is essential for developing effective personalised treatment plans.
Nutritional and dietary interventions

Nutritional and dietary interventions

Some nutritional and dietary interventions have been explored to help manage symptoms and improve the overall wellbeing of people with autism. Individual responses to these interventions can vary, and consulting with healthcare professionals, including registered dietitians and physicians, is important before making any significant dietary changes. 

Some of the nutritional and dietary interventions being explored include:

  • Gluten-free and casein-free diet – this is one of the most commonly discussed dietary interventions for autism. This diet eliminates foods containing gluten which is found in wheat, barley and rye, and casein is found in dairy products. Some parents report improvements in behaviour, cognition and gastrointestinal symptoms in their children after implementing this diet. However, scientific evidence supporting its effectiveness is mixed, and more rigorous studies are needed.
  • Low-carbohydrate or ketogenic diet – some research suggests that low-carbohydrate or ketogenic diets might benefit individuals with autism by potentially reducing inflammation. These diets emphasise foods rich in healthy fats, moderate protein and low carbohydrates. However, more research is needed to understand their long-term effects and benefits specifically for people with autism.
  • Supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids – omega-3 fatty acids have been studied for their potential benefits in managing symptoms of autism. These fatty acids are found in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines, as well as in fish oil supplements.
  • Vitamin and mineral supplements – deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals, have been reported in some people with autism. Therefore, supplementation with these nutrients may be considered under the guidance of a healthcare professional.
  • Probiotics and gut health – there is growing interest in the gut-brain connection and the role of the gut microbiome in autism. Some people with autism experience gastrointestinal symptoms, and research suggests that probiotics might help improve gut health and potentially alleviate some autism-related symptoms. More research is needed in this area.

Alternative and complementary therapies

Alternative and complementary therapies for autism are a diverse range of treatments that are often used alongside or instead of conventional medical interventions. It is important to note that while some individuals with autism may find these therapies beneficial, their effectiveness can vary widely, and not all alternative treatments have scientific evidence to support their use. We have already discussed some examples of alternative and complementary therapies within this article. Some other examples include:

  • Music therapy – music therapy involves using music to address social, emotional, cognitive and communication needs. It may help improve social interaction and communication skills in people with autism.
  • Animal-assisted therapy – interactions with therapy animals, such as dogs or horses, may help people with autism improve their social skills, communication and emotional regulation.
  • Mindfulness and meditation – techniques such as mindfulness and meditation may help people with autism manage anxiety, improve focus and regulate emotions.
  • Yoga and tai chi – these practices may help to improve flexibility, balance and coordination, as well as promote relaxation and reduce anxiety in people with autism.
  • Sensory integration therapy – this therapy aims to help people with autism regulate their sensory experiences, which can be hypersensitive or hyposensitive in some cases.

Conclusion

The latest research and developments in autism treatment are promising in working towards more personalised, comprehensive and effective approaches in order to support people on the autism spectrum. Significant strides have been made in improving outcomes and enhancing quality of life. 

There is a need for continued collaboration among researchers, clinicians, educators and advocates in order to further refine existing therapies, explore novel interventions and address the diverse needs of individuals across the autism spectrum.

If you or your child has a diagnosis of autism, you can seek support from:

National Autistic Society

Ambitious About Autism 

Autism Awareness

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About the author

Claire Vain

Claire Vain

Claire graduated with a degree in Social Work in 2010. She is currently enjoying her career moving in a different direction, working as a professional writer and editor. Outside of work Claire loves to travel, spend time with her family and two dogs and she practices yoga at every opportunity!



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