Two Breakthrough Forms of Therapy for People with Autism

For many with autism, traditional therapy just doesn’t work. At present, the most popular form of therapy for people on the spectrum is behavior modification, which is designed to shape behaviors through a system of rewards and consequences. Behavior modification doesn’t work for everyone, and not all parents think it’s right for their child’s unique situation.

Thankfully, as autism becomes more prevalent, new therapies are being developed that can be tailored to the unique needs of a client with autism. There are more choices than ever now for people on the spectrum that need help.

Two of the most promising emerging forms of therapy are art therapy and animal therapy.

Art Therapy

The Art of Autism describes art therapy as follows:

Broadly speaking, art therapy promotes mental and emotional growth through art making. Unlike art instruction, art therapy is conducted with the aim of building life skills, addressing deficits and problem behaviors, and promoting healthy self-expression. Clients are encouraged to explore and express themselves using art materials; crafting attractive artwork is not the goal (though it may be a happy by-product).

Art therapy for those with autism, especially non-verbal autism, is a natural fit which allows them to communicate through a different medium rather than language. Those on the spectrum who struggle with social issues also stand to benefit greatly from art therapy by avoiding stressful interactions. This allows the patient to focus more on expressing themselves through their creativity and less on the struggle of communicating with and relating to someone through language. For people on the spectrum, art becomes a vital communication tool.


According to Temple Grandin, people on the spectrum often are visual thinkers. They’re able to visualize concepts in their heads and solve problems that others struggle with, but the process takes time and the brain needs to be given time to process and assemble thoughts into a cohesive and often elaborate mental image. This key element of the autistic mind makes art therapy a natural fit.

Art therapy isn’t about the end result: the pretty painting or the fired clay sculpture. What matters more is the creative process which allows a person on the spectrum to be aware of themselves and find freedom within. It’s a time where they can feel loved and appreciated for what they can do and do it on their own terms. Art therapy allows them an avenue to control what happens and bring their own vision to fruition. In their art, they’re the boss and what they want to happen, happens.

If you feel that you or a loved one could benefit from art therapy, visit the American Art Therapy Association’s website to learn more and find a therapist near you.

Animal Therapy

People on the spectrum also stand to benefit from animal therapy. Dogs, Horses and ASD: What Are Animal-Assisted Therapies?, is an article by Teresa Foden, an Assistant Editor at the Interactive Autism Network. In it, she elaborates on the extensive, clinically proven ways that animal therapy is proving successful in helping people with autism manage their condition.

A study published in the Western Journal of Nursing Research found that children with autism who played with the live dog were in a better mood and more aware of their surroundings than the children who were exposed to other variables in the study.

Two friends, child with Labrador retriever dog sitting in sunny

Arguably, the most compelling element of animal therapy for those on the spectrum is the ability of animals to help people learn to create social attachments. There is no need for verbal communication or complex human emotions when the service animal is present.

Service dogs that stay with a child with autism can be trained to serve as guardians, preventing the child from wandering. When the child is restless, the dog can distract or comfort and the dog can serve as a social cue to strangers and outsiders that the child needs special care and assistance.

Not every child finds they are able to bond with the dog, however, and the families that take on the dog will need to embrace the responsibility of having a pet that needs its own playtime, care, and social interactions with the family at large. Just like people, the dog needs opportunities to take breaks from its work and play. Ultimately, there are significant trade-offs that come with having a service dog which may not make it the best solution for a child on the spectrum and his or her family.

4 Paws for Ability claims to be the largest autism service dog organization in the United States, and to have been the “first agency to begin placing skilled autism service dogs” with families. Visit their website to learn more about service dogs and autism.

As autism becomes more prevalent, more people are committing to finding new and innovative solutions to helping people on the spectrum thrive. New therapy breakthroughs are a big reason to be excited about the progress being made in this field!

What are some therapy approaches we missed, and what’s worked for you? Let us know in the comments.

Support Research & Therapy

Help those with Autism and their families at The Autism Site for free!