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Complementary Approaches

Tammi Reynolds, BA & Mark Dombeck, Ph.D., edited by Kathryn Patricelli, MA Updated: Sep 25th 2018

No one treatment can successfully treat autism spectrum disorder symptoms in isolation. Instead, most therapists and caretakers use a combination of interventions and techniques to treat the disorder. A variety of "complimentary approaches" have been developed. Some are widely accepted while others are quite controversial. We will discuss some of the ones that are thought to be effective but will not discuss the controversial ones in this article. Please remember, it is critical to do thorough research and speak with professionals before implementing any treatment approach.

Social Stories

father and sonSocial stories, developed by Carol Gray, is a very popular complimentary approach to the treatment of autism spectrum disorder. The social stories are used to help a child navigate through social situations by helping the child see things from another person's point of view. Stories are designed using a systematic structure that eases children through the perception process one step at a time. Each story serves as a model for appropriate behavior in various social situations. The stories help children recognize social cues that can tell them how another person perceives the situation.

Social stories are based on the theory of mind, a concept that emerged during the middle 1990's. According to the theory of mind, people with autism spectrum disorder do not understand that other people have different thoughts than they do. In other words, they have no basis for seeing things from another person's point of view and are unable to interpret another person's feelings. For example, if they like trains, they believe that everyone else must like trains too.

According to the theory of mind, it's not so much the case that children with autism spectrum disorder lack empathy. It's more that they believe that everyone shares their same thoughts and emotions. We define empathy as a person's ability to understand another person's feelings, and to identify with other people's feelings or difficulties. Children with ASD's lack of empathy does not stem from being uncaring people, but rather from their strong tendency to misunderstand and misinterpret social cues. Social stories are used to help higher-functioning children with ASD to become aware of other people's thoughts and emotions.

Son-Rise Program

The Son-Rise program was developed by Barry Neil Kaufman and Samahria Lyte Kaufman in 1983. The Kaufmans are teachers and writers who have a son with autism spectrum disorder, Raun. Raun was diagnosed with severe autism spectrum disorder and his condition was considered incurable. In reaction, the Kaufmans developed a child-centered program that works with children's interests to promote better functioning. Raun Kaufman is reported to have significantly benefited from the program his parents created, to the point where today he is leading a mostly normal adult life.

The Son-Rise program is home-based. A therapist begins the program and trains the parents to work with their child. As the therapy progresses, the parents become the main therapists, while the professional therapist becomes more of a guide.

Imitation of children's self-stimulatory behaviors is a vital part of the Son-Rise program. Instead of prompting the child to stop rocking back-and-forth, the therapist, and then later the parents, rocks back-and-forth as well. Parents gain their child's attention by joining in with his behaviors, and then keep that attention by remaining focused solely on their child's interests. The Son-Rise program focuses on using the child's interests to the extreme. A Son-Rise therapist or parent enters the child's world. He or she imitates the child's actions and vocalizations, even if the actions are stigmatizing and unusual. This is unique, because most therapies work to bring children out of their isolated world and into the shared world. The program focuses on working with the child's interests to motivate him to learn and the program encourages using the child's interests and behaviors as a vehicle for interaction. Like RDI (described below) and Floortime (described previously) the Son-Rise program focuses on social interaction rather than behavior and learning.

More information on the Son-Rise program is available at

Relationship Development Intervention

Relationship Development Intervention (RDI), developed by Dr. Steve Gutstein, is a complimentary approach that has grown in popularity. It focuses on fostering the social development of children with autism spectrum disorder.

Rather than being a component of another larger set of therapeutic interventions, RDI is an entire program by itself, and it is the primary program that enrolled children participate in. Children who receive RDI services work with a professional RDI consultant who coordinates their care. RDI may be supplemented with other interventions, but the major focus of therapy for RDI enrolled children is relationship development.

RDI is a step-by-step therapy that eventually leads to the child's interacting with different people. The program begins one-on-one and progresses through group sessions. Enrolled children learn to interpret nonverbal social cues, like gestures and facial expressions. They are taught social concepts like of sharing and encouraged to develop empathy and awareness of others.

More information on RDI is available at

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

imitating - - Jul 22nd 2010

when my medium to high, autistic son screams, i scream too, sometimes even higher, then i tell him in a quiet voice, mummy talks quietly  and so do y0u and he does, it works for us.. he is going on 4 now

Music Therapist MT-BC - Jamie - Jun 10th 2008
Music Therapy could also be added to your page. For more information visit

?? - - Sep 11th 2007

Kay, the Commentor,

What is a "threatment"? 

complimentary/complementary - kay draper - Sep 22nd 2006
I would like to COMPLIMENT (praise) you for providing this COMPLIMENTARY (free) information. BUT: Non-traditional threatments, like the ones you mentioned; as well as many others, such as herbs, massage therapy, accupuncture and the like; are properly called COMPLEMENTARY. They are often used in conjunction with traditional, or mainstream, medical treatments. They supplement (add to) the program rather than supplant (replace) it. "Alternative medicine" is another term for therapy which are outside the realm of those accepted by the American Medical Association. However this term could technically be more restricive since it implies that such treatments are a replacement (alternative) to accepted medical practices.

Editor's Note: Thanks for calling our attention to this mistaken spelling. We'll fix.

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