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Autism: Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Author: Disabled World : Contact: Disabled World

Published: 2014-02-04

Synopsis and Key Points:

Study supports earlier findings that some families are using Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) as therapies for their children with autism.

Main Digest

The study also found that the overwhelming majority of families who used these therapies choose ones considered to be generally safe. The report appeared in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics; its findings back ones of a larger study by the Autism Speaks Treatment Network which were published in the year 2012.

(CAM), the term for medical products and practices that are not part of standard care. Standard care is what medical doctors, doctors of osteopathy, and allied health professionals, such as nurses and physical therapists, practice. Complementary medicine is used together with standard medical care. Alternative medicine is used in place of standard medical care.

In the new study researchers from California's MIND Institute discovered that almost 40% of 453 children with autism between the ages of 2 and 5 were receiving CAM treatments. The overwhelming majority were using approaches that, despite being unproven, were considered to be safe in general by the researchers involved. The approaches included:

Chart showing disproven approaches to autism treatment
Chart showing disproven approaches to autism treatment

Researchers also discovered that all of the families using CAM approaches were doing so along with, not instead of, proven therapies for autism. Children participating in greater than 20 hours of behavioral therapy each week were more likely to receive CAM than children who had less access to therapy. A small but notable minority of the families were using CAM treatments that researchers classified as being potentially dangerous, invasive, or ones that have been dis-proven through scientific research. Among these approaches were included:

Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Rob Ring stated, "CAM approaches are important treatment options for individuals on the autism spectrum. As with any treatment, our emphasis and expectation must be on having convincing evidence of safety and efficacy." Autism Speaks has funded and continues to fund several related studies, including research on acupuncture and acupressure, B-12 injections, fatty acid supplements and the safety and efficacy of commonly used CAM treatments for autism. Over the last 8 years, Autism Speaks has been especially active in supporting research on melatonin for sleep disorders associated with autism. The positive results of their studies have assisted with moving melatonin into the realm of evidence-based medicine.

Autism Speaks Senior Vice President of Medical Research Paul Wang said, "The UC-Davis findings bolster what our AS-ATN researchers found in their study of more than 3,000 children with autism. Since CAM is used so widely, health care providers need to ask families about its use. They need to invite an open discussion of risks and benefits. All treatments can cause side effects. This is true whether they come from the health-food store or the pharmacy. Even with specialized diets, it's important to ensure that essential nutrients aren't missing."

The families that participated in the UC Davis survey were part of the larger, 'Childhood Autism Risk from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE),' study. Autism Speaks has been a long-time supporter of CHARGE and continues to support the study through several research grants.

According to Daniel Coury, M.D. And Chief of Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio - complementary medicine is used for all sorts of things such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and arthritis and finding it being used for children with autism is pretty much expected. Doctor Coury is also the Medical Director of the Autism Treatment Network. Dr. Coury stated, "Families may be looking at complementary treatment because traditional medical treatments may not be doing the job for their child." Anecdotal evidence exists that these diets might improve symptoms in some children who experience autism. Parents need to make sure their child's doctors are aware of what they are taking because some alternative therapies might have side effects on their own, or when used in combination with other forms of therapies.

Chart showing percentages of children with autism on psychotropic medications
Chart showing percentages of children with autism on psychotropic medications

Psychotropic Medications and Children with Autism

A study revealed that younger children with autism were less likely than older children to receive psychotropic medications. Of children aged 11 and older, 60% took 1 psychotropic medication compared with 44% of children with autism between the ages of 6 and 10. Of children with autism between the ages of 3 and 5, 11% took psychotropic medication and 4% of children with autism under the age of 3 did. The most commonly prescribed medications were stimulants to treat symptoms of ADHD and the drug, 'risperidone,' which is used to treat irritability. Older children were more likely to be taking more than one psychotropic medication, according to the study.

The study brought up questions about when, how, and why these medications are being used to treat children with autism, said Dr. Coury. He went on to say, "It may be that parents and doctors are not treating these children when they are first diagnosed, which usually occurs at very young ages. But as the diagnosis is established, there is a higher likelihood of medications being prescribed. Or the use of these drugs may reflect those children who are more severely affected or don't have access to other non-medical treatments such as intensive behavioral therapies."

Children who are diagnosed with autism many times see a number of specialists several times each week for various types of speech and behavioral therapies. Yet if these therapies are not available, parents might reach for plan B or C according to Dr. Coury.

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