Treatment Options

While there is no known cure for autism, there are treatment and education approaches that can address some of the challenges associated with the condition. Intervention can help to lessen disruptive behaviors, and education can teach self-help skills for greater independence. But just as there is no one symptom or behavior that identifies people with autism, there is no single treatment that will be effective for everyone on the spectrum. Individuals can use the positive aspects of their condition to their benefit, but treatment must begin as early as possible and focus on the individual’s unique strengths, weaknesses and needs.

Throughout the history of the Autism Society, parents and professionals have been confounded by conflicting messages regarding which treatment options are appropriate for children and adults on the autism spectrum. As each person responds to treatment differently, we cannot endorse any one treatment or program. Families should educate themselves about all options and choose what they feel is in the best interest of their child and family, based on their experience and what resources are available.

This section provides an overview of many available approaches, not specific treatment recommendations. Keep in mind that the word “treatment” is used in a very limited sense. While typically used for children under age three, the approaches described here can be included in an educational program for older children as well.

It is important to match a child’s potential and specific needs with treatments or strategies that are likely to help him/her reach established goals and greatest potential. The Autism Society does not want to give the impression that parents or professionals will select just one treatment from a list. A search for appropriate treatment must be paired with the knowledge that all treatment approaches are not equal – what works for one will not work for all. The basis a treatment plan should come from a thorough evaluation of the child’s strengths and weaknesses.

Red Flags

General cues to look out for which may indicate the need for a formal assessment, include the following:

  •  Little awareness of other people.
  • Poor imaginative play (e.g. pretending that a block is a car or plane).
  • Speech and language development is deviant, delayed or absent.
  • Lack of response to verbal input (e.g. not responding to his/her name being called).
  • Distress resulting form changes in environment or routine.
  • Repetitive play or activity.
  • Self-stimulatory behaviours (e.g. rocking, flapping hands, spinning etc.).
  • Inappropriate attachment to objects.
  • Tantrums or meltdowns without obvious (to us) causes.
  • Sudden laughing or crying for no apparent reason.
  • Difficulties in interacting with others.
  • Little or no eye contact.
  • No sense of danger.
  • Self-injurious behaviours.
  • Appears to prefer playing alone.
  • Dulled or heightened sensory perception (sense of sight, smell, touch, taste, etc.).
  • Uneven gross/fine motor skills.
  • Abnormal sleeping patterns.


Warning signs of autism in early childhood:

Parents should ask their child’s family doctor for referral to a developmental paediatrician for assessment if there are concerns with any of the following:

Communication Red Flags:

  • No babbling by 11 months of age
  • No simple gestures by 12 months (e.g. waving bye-bye)
  • No single words by 16 months
  • No 2-word phrases by 24 months (noun + verb, e.g. “baby sleeping”)
  • No response when name is called, causing concern about hearing
  • Loss of any language or social skills at ANY age (i.e. regression)

Behaviour Red Flags:

  • Odd or repetitive ways of moving fingers or hands
  • Oversensitive to certain textures, sounds or lights
  • Lack of interest in toys or plays with them in unusual ways (e.g. lining up or opening and closing parts instead of playing with the toy as a whole)
  • Compulsions or rituals (has to perform activities in special way or certain sequence; prone to tantrums if ritual is interrupted)
  • Preoccupations with unusual interests such as light switches, doors, fans, wheels
  • Unusual fears (e.g. of the colour green)

Social Red Flags:

  • Rarely makes eye contact when interacting with people
  • Does not play peek-a-boo
  • Does not point to show things he/she is interested in or follow your point
  • More interested in looking at objects than at people’s faces
  • Prefers to play alone
  • Does not make attempts to get parents’ attention
  • Seems to be in “his/her own world”
  • Does not respond to parents attempts to play, even if relaxed
  • Avoids or ignores other children when they approach


Requires a medical diagnosis

The range and severity of symptoms can vary widely. Common symptoms include difficulty with communication, difficulty with social interactions, obsessive interests and repetitive behaviours.

People may experience:

  1. Behavioural: inappropriate social interaction, poor eye contact, compulsive behaviour, impulsivity, repetitive movements, self-harm, or persistent repetition of words or actions
  2. Developmental: learning disability or speech delay in a child
  3. Cognitive: intense interest in a limited number of things or problem paying attention
  4. Psychological: unaware of others’ emotions or depression
  5. Also common: anxiety, change in voice, sensitivity to sound, or tic

What is autism

Autism Spectrum Disorders was first documented in 1943 but was thought to be a part of Schizophrenia. It was only
separated as a diagnosis in the 1980s. Autism is thus a relatively new disability and is as such an unknown disability.
Autism is a neuro-developmental disability that affects the way an individual makes sense of the world. Autism affects four
main areas of development: 1. Communication, 2. Social Interaction, 3. Sensory Processing, 4. Rigid and Repetitive
Behaviours. These areas of impairment have a major, pervasive effect of the functioning of individuals with autism.
Autism is a spectrum disorder meaning that the range of functioning varies between each individual on the spectrum. On
one side of the spectrum there are individuals that will need full support for the rest of their lives and on the other side of
the spectrum are individuals who can function in main-stream society despite their areas of impairment.

International prevalence figures in 2012 indicated that 1 in 88 individuals are affected by autism. As the disability
becomes more known, this figure is dramatically increasing (In the US, incidence has increased to 1 in 56, CDC, 2014).
Considering South Africa’s population of over 52 million individuals, we estimate that just under 600 000 individuals in
South Africa have Autism!

These individuals however remain undiagnosed and unsupported, living a life in a world that is overwhelming and
extremely stressful. They remain without support and intervention due to the lack of awareness about Autism in our
country. Autism is not understood and often misperceived to be a cultural punishment or religious affliction. This stigma
results in further isolation and commonly abuse of individuals living with Autism.

At Autism Limpopo, besides lobbying government for services (less than 1% of our children are in any type of educational
facility) we strive to create awareness in our communities, educate those with and those working with Autism and
empower and build capacity in our communities so that Autism is understood and embraced as diversity not a disease. The
awareness, education and capacity building will encourage an inclusive society. By doing this individuals with Autism will
be accepted and abusive situations will be prevented in the future. Individuals with Autism will be afforded the same
opportunities for inclusion, education and employment as every other individual in South Africa.