How should services be structured? The AAP recommends service providers who specialize in ABA (applied behavior analysis), the process of applying behavioral interventions to encourage positive behaviors and reduce negative behaviors, as well as agencies that use training models called TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication-Handicapped Children), and DIR (developmental, individual-difference, relationship-based) also called Floortime. Sessions should focus on speech and language therapy, social skills instruction, pretend play, and occupational therapy.
Note that kids on the autism spectrum benefit from one-on-one instruction when learning a wide variety of skills such as paying attention to a teacher, understanding spoken language, using spoken words, and playing appropriately. Often this instruction starts at a table with a child imitating simple actions, such as clapping hands or touching his nose.
What about waiting lists? Parents often cite concerns about waiting lists for autism evaluations and services, a situation that is not likely to change soon, even as more service providers spring up in response to rising demand. All that said, it's important that you consider the recommendations for the quantity of services carefully, and if it's possible, follow them. If a doctor recommends 25 hours of ABA therapy a week (remember the services guidelines), and a provider offers less, push back and ask why. It pays to be an educated consumer.
Quality is also an issue. Best practices among service providers call for expert supervision of teachers and therapists, and written documentation of progress (or lack of progress). When you begin a relationship with a new service provider, you can ask what kinds of written progress reports you can expect to receive. You will need that documentary evidence later, when you assess next steps in your child's education and therapy programs.
What about dietary needs? In recent years, a number of parents have raised questions about food allergies and digestion problems—specifically pertaining to casein, a protein found in dairy products, and gluten, a protein found in wheat and other grains—and their aggravation of autistic symptoms. Some parents report positive gains from cutting out these foods, but researchers haven't found a link yet. At the same time, researchers have found that kids on the autism spectrum can express their behavior by extreme food selectivity, or refusing to eat many foods. For these reasons, it can be useful to have your child tested for food allergies to rule out problems that your child may not be able to tell you about.
Where to Go for Services
There are both publicly-funded and private agencies that offer education and treatment services for children on the autism spectrum. In the United States, the early intervention program created by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) covers children under age three who qualify for special education services. Local school districts are required by IDEA to provide services for children in their communities starting at age three so they can receive what's called a "free appropriate public education" (FAPE).
You can start with the doctor who diagnosed your child for suggestions on where to go for the autism services you need based on the evaluations of your child. Be sure to ask the doctor for other people you can contact for more information, including other doctors, other parents, and social services agencies that specialize in helping children with autism.