There is no such thing as a cure for autism, and, since it affects each individual differently, there is no single treatment that is effective for everyone. Nevertheless, therapy, diet and medication are general categories of treatment that allow autistics and their families to cope with the condition.
Many families have found that being careful about diet and nutrition can improve life for autistics. A diet of whole foods and natural ingredients, with a minimum of preservatives and dyes has provided relief for many people. Others have had success with a gluten-free and casein-free diet. Such families provide evidence that the proliferation of artificial preservatives, dyes, and sweeteners in commercial foods may be responsible for increased rates of autism, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and other conditions.
Dietary interventions may work by changing the bacteria that inhabit the digestive system. One of the most surprising results of the study of the microbiome has been that the intestinal microbiota modulate behavioral and physiological abnormalities associated with neurodevelopmental disorders. Researchers have found that some individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) display a variety of gastrointestinal abnormalities. Oral antibiotics alter the normal gut microbiota which play an important role in metabolizing plant polysaccharides, promoting gastrointestinal motility, maintaining water balance, producing some vitamins, and competing against pathogenic bacteria. Loss of normal gut flora can result in the overgrowth of pathogenic flora, which can in turn cause constipation and other problems. Researchers are now focusing on the possibility that gut-brain interactions could also be a direct result of microbial metabolic products.
Intensive therapy has proven to be key to helping autistics manage their struggles. Speech and language therapy is essential for helping autistics improve communication skills and understand subtleties of language and figures of speech. Physical therapy and occupational therapy are important for improving body-awareness and coordination, as well as sensory integration issues and motor development. Psychotherapy is also necessary to help autistics understand and regulate the psychological and emotional effects of autism. The field of behavior analysis has also proven to be a helpful tool in help autistics live fuller lives.
Medications are not a primary method of treating autism but are often used to moderate some of the symptoms. For example, anti-depressant or anti-psychotic drugs may be prescribed to deal with extreme or damaging behaviors. However, since such strong drugs tend to have strong side-effects, there is a constant tradeoff between the benefits of the medication and the drawbacks of the side-effects. Much effort is required by the doctors and the families to find a proper balance.
For some people, service dogs are helpful in living independently. The dogs are specially trained to alert their handlers to important or dangerous situations and to lead them to safety. They can also intervene during crises and prevent self-harm. Service animals also provide comforting and calming by cuddling with their owners. Petting and grooming the animals can also help autistics self-soothe.
The many facets and presentations of autism makes it not only difficult to treat, but costly as well. Autism is neither strictly a physical disease nor a mental illness, so it doesn't fall into conventional categories of treatment. Since many treatments and accommodations are non-medical, they are not covered by insurance, and families must bear the full cost of treatments (or, worse, forgo it). In addition, the areas that are covered by insurance usually have strict limits on coverage and number of visits, so families and doctors have to decide how to get the most out of a limited number of sessions. Also, government assistance for such services are always among the first to be reduced when state or federal budgets get cut.
In addition to medical expenses, there are many other financial costs of autism. Natural and whole foods are much more expensive than ordinary food and are often found only at specialty stores, so there is significant extra expense if treatment involves special diets. It is also common for one parent to have to quit a job (or be unable to take on a job) in order to devote full time to caring for an autistic child, at a drastic loss of income. There are also costs to miscellaneous accommodations that help autistics cope with daily life, such as earplugs or earphones, fidget toys, clothes that don't scratch, etc. Some parents use technology such as tablet computers for therapeutic or communication uses at home. Although the cost of any one of these things might be relatively modest, they add up and can put significant strain on the monthly budget.
Families with autistic members also bear non-financial costs due to the condition. Family outings are difficult with autistics, because of the potential for problems and meltdowns. Autism is also difficult on siblings, because the autistic child often receives the lion's share of the parents' attention. Parents have to be careful to make sure that siblings don't get lost in the shuffle. These problems are all magnified when there is more that one autistic child in the family. As one might expect, all these problems can put tremendous stress on a marriage, as couples rarely have time to themselves, and, for couples who divorce, a diagnosis of autism is often a factor.