Teen Autism: Five Treatment Methods

Autism is a complex neurological disorder that is symptomatic in different ways for different teens. Although general symptoms are the same, the specific challenges for each adolescent diagnosed with teen Autism can vary. For this reason, there are a variety of therapies that can address different challenges.

It is common that one single therapy will not work for every child for teen autism, and what works for one teen may not work for another. Parents and caregivers might need to use a combination of the therapies below in order to address all of his or her needs.

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA)

This form of therapy has been used to treat autistic children and teens since the 1960’s. It addresses the communication, social, academic, and behavioral impairments that are common among those diagnosed with autism. This form of therapy is from the work of B.F. Skinner, a Behavioral Psychologist who developed  operant conditioning.  It uses the basics of conditioning – an antecedent, the resulting behavior, and consequence – in order shape a teen’s unwanted behavior so that it is socially acceptable.

Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT)

Because ABA has been so successful, variations of this therapy have emerged. One of these is PRT, developed in the 1970’s. It uses the methods of ABA, but focuses on pivotal behaviors that have a strong influence on a teen’s overall conduct. By focusing on these core behaviors, an overall change in behavior can be made.  Its teaching focus is on language skills, decreasing disruptive and self-stimulating behaviors, and enhancing social and communication skills. One difference in PRT is that it is child-directed. This is by uncovering the teen’s intrinsic desires to change. Depending on how an autistic child responds to sessions determines the next steps in therapy. Each session is to meet the goals and needs of the child as well as fit into the family’s routine at home.

Verbal Behavior (VB)

This form of therapy is also a variation of ABA. Its focus is on language and how language can shape behavior. B.F. Skinner also developed the idea that language can be grouped into various forms of operants, each serving different behavioral functions. Using these operants appropriately can help to shape the behavior of an autistic teen.

Developmental Individual Difference Relationship Model (DIR)

This therapy was developed in the 1980’s and assists a teen in reaching six developmental milestones. These are learning to use emotional feedback, regulate behavior, use language and non-verbal communication, adapt to social circumstances, discover meaning in a larger social context, and reflect on past experiences to anticipate future scenarios and associated necessary behavior.

FloorTime (DIR)

This form of therapy relies on the theory that an autistic adolescent can improve his communication when an adult meets him at his developmental level. Therapy is woven into playtime – often done on the floor. This therapeutic technique is based on the therapy described above, DIR, and also has six goals for therapy: self-regulation, cultivating intimacy, two-way communication, complex communication, emotional needs, and emotional thinking.


Another popular treatment therapy for teen autism is the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM). However, it is used mainly for children from 1 to 4 years of age. It is mentioned here because it is often grouped among the therapies above, although it is not typically used with adolescents. This therapy is a developmental, relationship-based that focuses on social skills, such as communication, language, and cognition.

The length and intensity of sessions will vary depending on the type of therapy. However, because each of these have a different focus, a combination of these might be best to address the unique challenges and needs of your child.