by Karen Doyle
According to the advocacy group Autism Speaks, one in every 110 children is affected by autism. Upon receiving a diagnosis of this baffling disorder, desperate parents will try virtually anything to help their child. Some parents will try multiple treatments at once, or latch on to the “latest and greatest” idea. Celebrities who have come forward with their stories and the treatments they have used add to the noise. How can parents desperate for a treatment decide what is right for their child?
There is no cure for autism, but more treatment methods are springing up all the time as doctors and parents try to understand and overcome this mysterious disorder.
Some of these methods have been proven to be effective. Some have only anecdotal evidence that they work. And some may be downright dangerous.
The standard treatment: Applied Behavior Analysis
The most commonly recognized treatment for autism is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. ABA therapy consists of trials in which a child, who for example is just learning to speak, is shown a picture of an object. The therapist says the name of the object. If the child can repeat the name of the object, she is given a reward of some kind. Gradually, as simple object names are mastered, phrases and sentences are taught. Over time, the reward is faded out so that the child is able to respond correctly without it.
ABA is characterized by careful recording of the child’s responses to measure success. This is sometimes referred to as “discrete trial analysis.”
When started very young and used consistently, ABA has been shown to have a significant impact for many children. ABA requires a trained therapist and 30 to 40 hours per week of intensive therapy, even for very young children.
To learn more about Applied Behavior Analysis, visit these websites:
Since children with autism also often have gastrointestinal disorders, or disorders of the “gut,” it has been theorized that correcting an imbalance or disorder in the gut will reduce or eliminate the symptoms of autism. There are several treatments that address the gastrointestinal system.
Dr. James B. Adams at Arizona State University has examined many studies of various dietary treatments for autism and has published a comprehensive analysis of them.
“Autism is a medical disorder,” said Dr. Adams. “It terms of treating it, psych meds are often used, but they are treating the symptoms, not the underlying problem. I am very supportive of behavioral, speech and physical therapies, but believe that they will work better if you have already treated the child’s underlying medical conditions.”
The first step is to ensure that the child eats a healthy diet. Since many children, particularly those with sensory issues, reject certain foods based on their taste or texture, this can be a challenge. Vitamin and mineral supplements can be helpful for children who are unable to consume the recommended amounts of certain foods. Eating foods that are organic and unprocessed is important, and processed sugar should be greatly minimized or eliminated entirely. Trans fats, artificial colors and flavors, and preservatives should also be avoided.
The next step is to look for any food allergies. Nuts, gluten, yeast, eggs, and dairy products are common allergens, but almost any food can cause a reaction in certain people. Identify the allergen by eliminating all foods except those that you know your child can tolerate. Then add suspected foods back in one at a time and watch for reaction. In a child with autism, the reaction may be different that you would expect, and may include changes in behavior.
Many parents report success using a gluten-free, casein-free diet. These are common allergens and can result in behavioral problems. The problems seem to be due to the digestive tract’s inability to properly digest these foods. This is a challenging diet to adhere to, as it eliminates all wheat and dairy products, but some studies report striking results.
Secretin is a hormone found in the gastrointestinal system that stimulates secretions from the pancreas and bile ducts when the stomach empties. In some cases, oral or transdermal doses of secretin have caused an improvement in the behavior of autistic children. Verbal skills have improved, and self-stimulating (“stimming”) behavior and tantrums have decreased.
The evidence of the efficacy of secretin has been anecdotal, and several studies have found that it is not effective for the long-term treatment of autism. (See studies, for research results.)
For research results, see “Secretin and Autism” by pediatric neurologists at Lake Forest Hospital, Illinois, and “Effects of Secretin on Children With Autism” by the Child Development Service at Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa.
Chelation is a treatment that removes heavy metals from the body. Heavily promoted by model and actress Jenny McCarthy as the treatment she successfully used for her son, chelation assumes that high levels of heavy metals, particularly mercury, are the cause of autism.
A previous study linking autism to the mercury contained in childhood vaccines has recently been debunked, so the cause of these high levels of heavy metals, if they exist, is somewhat in doubt. In February 2010, the British medical journal The Lancet retracted a 1998 study that had suggested a link between autism and vaccines, and the study’s author was banned from practicing medicine in the U.K.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which consists of breathing in extra oxygen inside a pressurized chamber, has recently been touted as a treatment for autism. It is unclear why this treatment would be beneficial, although a link to increased blood flow to the brain has been suggested.
A 2009 uncontrolled study reported in BMC Pediatrics indicated that children receiving 40 to as many as 80 hours of hyperbaric oxygen therapy showed improvement in responsiveness, eye contact and social interactions, and decreases in sensory issues. Information on hyperbaric oxygen therapy for autism can be found at HBOtreatment.com.
A 2010 study conducted by researchers at Columbia University in New York suggests that having children close together may increase the risk of autism. The study found that children who were less than two years younger than their next-oldest sibling had a higher instance of autism than the general population. The age of the parents did not appear to be a factor.
The authors of this study caution that more research is needed, but it has some concerned parents rethinking their plans to have children close together.
Implementing alternative treatments
There is somewhat of a Catch-22 involved with alternative treatments. All of them seem to work for some kids, and most kids will respond to one or more of them, but not all of them work for all kids. And it is often counterproductive to try more than one at once, as it is impossible to determine which treatment is responsible for the improvement. Since any improvement takes time to be apparent, parents run the risk of running out of time to try everything.
To avoid this conundrum, always work with your child’s pediatrician, and any specialists you have identified, to determine which treatments are the most likely to help your child.
Karen Doyle is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and three children in Scituate, Massachusetts. She writes on parenting topics and personal finance issues, as well as writing what she hopes is humor.