Treatment patterns in children with autism in the United States

Brigitta U. Monz*, Richard Houghton, Kiely Law, Georg Loss

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Children with autism receive different types of non-drug treatments. We aimed to describe caregiver-reported pattern of care and its variability by geography and healthcare coverage in a US-wide sample of children aged 3-17 years. We recruited caregivers from the Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge (SPARK) cohort. Two online questionnaires (non-drug treatment, Autism Impact Measure) were completed in September/October 2017. Primary outcome measures were caregiver-reported types and intensities of treatments (behavioral, developmental/relationship, speech and language (SLT), occupational, psychological, other; parent/caregiver training) in the previous 12 months. Main explanatory variables were geography and type of healthcare coverage. We investigated associations between the type/intensity of treatments and geography (metropolitan/nonmetropolitan) or coverage (Medicaid vs privately insured by employer) using regression analysis. Caregivers (n = 5,122) were mainly mothers (92.1%) with mean (SD) age of 39.0 (7.3) years. Mean child age was 9.1 (3.9) years; mostly males (80.0%). Almost all children received at least one intervention (96.0%). Eighty percent received SLT or occupational therapy, while 52.0% received both. Behavioral therapy and SLT were significantly more frequent and more intense in metropolitan than in nonmetropolitan areas. No consistently significant associations were seen between healthcare coverage and frequency or intensity of interventions. At least one barrier such as waiting list and no coverage was reported by 44.8%. In conclusion, in children sampled from SPARK, we observed differences between metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas, while we did not find significant differences between those privately insured versus Medicaid. Autism Res 2019, 12: 517-526 (c) 2019 The Authors. Autism Research published by International Society for Autism Research published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Lay SummaryThe American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends the use of multiple treatment modalities in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). We wanted to understand what types of treatment children (aged 3-17 years) with ASD receive in the United States, how and where the treatments take place and for how long. We invited caregivers from Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge (SPARK , ) to complete the study questions online. Participants reported on utilization of conventional, non-drug treatments for ASD, including behavioral interventions, developmental/relationship interventions, speech and language therapy (SLT), occupational therapy, psychological therapy, and parent/caregiver training. People that completed the study (n = 5,122) were primarily mothers of the child with ASD (92%); most of the children were boys (80%). The ASD care for the child was mostly coordinating by the mother. Almost all children received at least some type of non-drug therapies (96%), most often SLT and/or occupational therapy, mainly provided in school. Behavioral therapy was most often received in public school in rural areas, while at home in urban areas. We saw less use of behavioral therapy and SLT in rural areas, but overall comparable use between children covered by Medicaid and those covered by private insurance. Almost half the caregivers reported at least one barrier to treatment, such as waiting list and no coverage. More than half said that their child benefited much or very much from the therapies received. While overall non-drug treatment rates for children with ASD were high in the United States in our study, differences existed depending on where the family lives; not only regarding the type of therapy, but also where it takes place.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)517-526
Number of pages10
JournalAutism Research
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2019


  • autism spectrum disorder
  • children
  • service use
  • access to care
  • urban
  • rural
  • Medicaid
  • private insurance
  • CARE

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