Although there are a number of proven behavioral, educational, and psychological treatments for autism, it’s common for concerned parents to look into alternative therapies that promise dramatic improvement or even a cure. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as many as one third of parents have tried alternative treatments for autism. In about 10% of cases, those treatments posed a potential danger to the child. If you are a parent of a child on the autism spectrum, it’s essential that you make educated decisions about the treatments you choose.
Alternative Treatments for Autism Spectrum Disorders
Even though no one is certain about the cause of ASD, there are numerous theories, ranging from vaccinations and mercury exposure to a supposed link between Celiac disease and autism. Many of these theories have given rise to treatments tailored to improve symptoms or even “cure” a child. These alternative treatments go beyond the recommendations of most pediatricians and neurologists, but there are anecdotal reports of their successes.
Based on the idea that autism is a reaction to certain proteins in foods like wheat and milk, or a response to the lack of certain vitamins and minerals, the diet for autistic children recommends removing all gluten and casein from a child’s food intake for three months. This diet has a strong following among parents, some of whom claim to have seen dramatic improvements. However, the CDC cautions that parents should always consult a pediatrician before beginning this type of treatment, which can result in vitamin deficiencies.
The concept behind herbal remedies as an autism treatment is that they provide a natural alternative to prescription medications. Typically, these remedies attempt to treat various components of the disorder, rather than the underlying condition. The effectiveness of herbal treatments has not been proven, but some parents swear by it. If you choose to supplement your child’s diet with herbal products, be sure to consult your pediatrician to rule out allergies, drug interactions, or harmful side effects.
Chelation therapy is based on the idea that autism is caused by heavy metals, and that autistic children’s bodies are less adept at removing these harmful metals from the blood. This type of therapy involves using chemicals to bind with the heavy metals and help them pass from the body. While this treatment is approved for diagnosed cases of heavy metal poisoning, it is extremely dangerous as a treatment for autism.
According to a journal report in Clinical Toxicology, a five-year-old boy died due to this treatment. Prior to 2008, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) was planning to study the safety of chelation therapy. After preliminary tests showed that the therapy directly caused brain damage in rats, the NIMH abruptly canceled the study. In 2010, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning to manufacturers of over-the-counter chelation products to stop selling these drugs due to potential danger to patients.
Another potentially dangerous and controversial treatment is secretin therapy. The idea behind this treatment is that injections of a hormone called secretin, which is involved in the digestive process, may help children with autism improve their eye gaze, behavior, and interaction. However, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development warns parents this is an off-label, or non-FDA-approved, use of secretin and that the treatment may have side effects for children.
Weighted vests, weighted blankets, and a number of other autism therapy products offer deep pressure that may satisfy a sensory need in children with autism spectrum disorders. According to a review of the literature published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, a large number of studies found that these deep pressure devices calmed children and helped them focus. However, it’s important to note that this is not a stand-alone treatment; it is often part of a comprehensive sensory integration program with a trained occupational therapist. It’s essential that the weight of the device be appropriate for the child’s size and age, and you need a professional to help you determine that weight. There are no downsides to this type of treatment, but it must be accompanied by additional therapy.
To find out more about deep pressure, consult the occupational therapist at your child’s school or ask your pediatrician to refer you to an occupational therapist in your area.
Prayer and Meditation
According to a study in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, prayer and meditation were among the most popular alternative treatments reported by parents of children on the spectrum. Although the concept of a mind-body connection is controversial and using this type of treatment as a stand-alone therapy is not advisable, there are no negative side effects associated with it. There is no scientific evidence that prayer or mindfulness can treat pervasive developmental disorders like autism, but it is possible that it can help children and parents relax and focus. It can also provide comfort.
It’s very important to keep in mind that prayer and meditation should be a supplementary therapy for autism, not a primary treatment. If you’re interested in incorporating this type of treatment into your therapy program, talk to a religious or spiritual advisor.
Hypnosis for autism is designed to treat the underlying anxiety that often accompanies the disorder. There has been very little professional research on this treatment, but a small study published in the journal Contemporary Hypnosis examined the effect of a virtual reality hypnosis game on the behavior of two boys with ASD. The study reported that there was no change in the children’s autism symptoms but that parents reported that both boys were more relaxed and that they enjoyed the treatment.
Since there is very little research on this therapy, it’s difficult to determine if there are side effects or if the treatment really works. If you’re interested in trying this type of program, talk to your pediatrician or psychologist about a referral. Additionally, it’s best to pair this type of experimental therapy with established treatments so your child can continue to progress.
Neurofeedback for autism spectrum disorders involves teaching a child to control his brain waves. The theory is that this will help the child learn to control behaviors as well. While this was once considered a viable treatment option, current research does not support it. In some cases, it can even have harmful side effects.
Auditory integration is a type of sound-based therapy that is designed to help ASD children who are hypersensitive to sound or who need assistance integrating their sensory environment. It’s sometimes used as part of a sensory integration treatment plan under the care of an occupational therapist. Typically, the procedure involves the child wearing a set of headphones and listening to a special type of music that covers various frequencies. A review of the literature published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found that in most studies, there was no therapeutic benefit associated with auditory integration therapy. However, a couple of small studies mentioned in the review did find that the treatment helped symptoms.
If you’re interested in trying this type of therapy, talk to your occupational therapist. There is no downside to this treatment, but it should be used in conjunction with other therapies.
Acupuncture and Massage Therapy
Body-based treatments like acupuncture and massage therapy are designed to aid in relaxation and stimulate the mind-body connection. A review of the literature in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that there were not enough scientifically sound studies about massage therapy and autism to make a judgment about its effectiveness. Similarly, a review of the literature in Cochrane Summaries found that there was not sufficient evidence to make a judgment about the effectiveness of acupuncture in treating autism. Neither of these treatments is associated with negative side effects.
If you’re interested in trying one of these alternative treatments, consult your doctor for advice. You can find a licensed massage therapist or acupuncturist in your area that may be willing to try this type of therapy. Always continue your other therapies when experimenting with an alternative treatment like this.
Missing the Window of Opportunity
Although there isn’t much that autism researchers agree on, one point of consensus is the importance of early intervention. According to a presentation by Dr. Laurie Stephens, Director of the Autism Spectrum Disorders Programs at The Help Group, there is a critical window in children’s development between the ages of birth and six years. During this time, it is absolutely essential that kids receive the very best services targeted at their individual needs.
If parents choose alternative treatments instead of established treatments, they may be missing the opportunity to truly help their child during this crucial time. Aside from the direct dangers of chelation therapy or unwanted side effects of other treatments, this is a secondary, very serious danger to consider when choosing unproven alternative treatments for autism.
Make Educated Choices Out of Love
It’s natural to consider alternative treatments in your quest to help your child. However, it’s very important to do your homework about these therapies, since some of them have negative side effects. Always talk to your pediatrician or neurologist before beginning any type of treatment, and be sure to continue your regular therapies to avoid missing the window of opportunity to give your child the best chance at overcoming some of the challenges of ASD. If you make educated choices out of love, your child will make progress.