The Case For Early Treatment
Autism experts believe that the earlier the treatment, the better the outcome. The best-studied technique, applied behavior analysis (ABA), can require 20 to 25 hours of one-on-one time each week with a trained parent or therapist. Although there is no "cure" for autism, decades of data suggest that ABA (and possibly other intensive behavior therapies) help kids achieve better language and social skills and higher intelligence levels.
The New England Center for Children, in Southborough, Massachusetts, provides ABA therapy in homes and a specialized school for children from preschool to young adulthood. When I visited the center, I was struck by how much attention the staffers paid to each child. In one classroom, for example, each preschooler had a full-time teacher who sat with him or her and provided continuous guidance for literally every task in the day. Bill Ahearn, Ph.D., the center's research director, explained that this intensive teaching can be too pricey for most families to pay for themselves. In some states local school districts are responsible for these costs; in other states, parents and school districts split the costs. Insurance coverage is also available in some states to fund ABA therapy outside of school hours.
Still, there is controversy over whether intensive treatment away from mainstream preschools is right for all children on the autism spectrum. "If my child had mild autism, I wouldn't do 25 hours per week of ABA," admits Dr. Lord. That kind of therapy may take those children away from important opportunities to socialize with typical kids, and may not be critical to their development, she explains. It may be better for them to join a classroom in a regular preschool and have occasional therapy.