Studies show that as many as 95 percent of U.S. parents with children on the autistic spectrum try incorporating non-traditional therapies into their treatment plan. These treatments may be in addition to (complementary) or instead of (alternative) traditional drug therapies and other Western medicine approaches such as physical therapy. These types of treatments are collectively known as complementary and alternative treatments (CAT).
CAT therapies for autism include specialized diets, nutritional supplements, massage, meditation, energy therapies, homeopathy, melatonin, probiotics, vitamin B-12 injections, high-dose vitamin B-6 and magnesium, chelation therapy, acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and the use of anti-fungal drugs aimed at yeast infections. Unlike traditional drug therapies and integrated treatments such as occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech therapy, many CAT therapies have not been rigorously tested for safety or effectiveness in clinical trials. Some CAT approaches may fail to treat autism spectrum disorders (ASD), and some may be harmful.
If you choose to try one or more CAT therapies, it is important to maintain the traditional drug and therapy regimen established by your doctor. These treatments have been proven effective in rigorous, scientific trials. It is also vital to inform your child’s doctor of all treatments you incorporate so that they can warn you about any potential interactions and correctly interpret any side effects.
What does it involve?
Below are the basic facts of some of the CAT therapies shown to be potentially effective in clinical trials.
Melatonin is a hormone available over the counter in pill, spray or dissolvable tablet form, taken each night. Consult your doctor for dosage and timing.
Vitamin B-6 and magnesium are both available over the counter. The supplements are taken daily in pill form.
Methyl B-12 injections are given by a doctor every two or three days.
If your child has a restricted or idiosyncratic diet, a multivitamin containing the recommended daily amounts of essential vitamins and minerals may be taken once a day.
Chelation, or removal of toxic metals from the body, is a controversial treatment for autistic spectrum disorder. Treatment involves one or more rounds of a chemical called 2, 3 dimercaptosuccinic acid (DMSA). Chelation therapy must be administered in a medical setting. Due to potential side effects, chelation should only be considered if your child tests positive for heavy metal contamination.
Massage therapy can be performed by certified massage therapists, or parents or caregivers can receive massage training.
Acupuncture is the insertion of thin needles shallowly into the skin at specific pressure points on the body. It has been used in China for thousands of years to promote health and treat disease. Acupuncture may be performed in 30- or 60-minute sessions one or more times per week.
All CAT therapies are intended to ease various symptoms of autistic spectrum disorders.
A 2012 article in Autism Research and Treatment reviewed clinical studies of many CAT therapies for children with autism. Researchers concluded that melatonin, multivitamins, and massage are the most highly recommended CAT therapies.
A 2013 article summarized the findings of 20 clinical studies on the use of melatonin for sleep disorders in children with ASD. Researchers found that melatonin helped promote earlier sleep onset, longer sleep duration, and fewer nighttime awakenings. Some studies also showed improvements in daytime behavior in children with sleep disorders who used melatonin.
Massage has been proven to relax children with autism and to promote sleep, language gains, social connection and communication. Massage also helps reduce disruptive behaviors and anxiety.
In a controlled trial, parents of autistic children given multivitamins reported improved behavior as compared to the parents of children given a placebo.
There were mixed results for high doses of vitamin B-6 and magnesium, but some positive indications that the treatment could improve outbursts, self-mutilation and other stereotypical ASD behaviors. The treatment was most commonly effective for young boys who were small for their age.
Methyl B-12 injections were found to improve autistic behaviors in some individuals as determined by some standards.
In clinical trials, chelation therapy has produced improvements in language, social behavior, and cognition when performed on children with confirmed toxic levels of metal in their blood.
In some studies, acupuncture produced positive gains in attention, language and overall functioning.
Some insurers will cover certain CAT therapies, but others may not cover any, or may not cover the specific therapy you want to try. Out-of-pocket costs for CAT therapies may be expensive.
Depending on where you live, it may be difficult to obtain some CAT therapies.
An overdose of Vitamin B-6 can cause neuropathy. Overdose of magnesium can cause diarrhea.
Chelation can cause side effects including kidney and liver damage, diarrhea, regression, gastrointestinal issues, rash, and fatigue.
Melatonin should be used with caution and physician oversight in children. Melatonin may interact with other hormones, which may result in the disturbance of growth patterns in adolescents. Melatonin may increase the risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, depression and seizures in some people.