Alternative Treatments for Autism

Written by the Healthline Editorial Team | Published on September 8, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA on September 8, 2014

Alternative Treatments for Autism

Many parents of children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) choose to look beyond traditional therapies and consider complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). According to Autism Speaks, 30 to 95 percent of children with an ASD have been given some type of CAM treatment.

It’s important to remember that not all CAM treatments have been fully researched. While many are safe, and some may even be effective, take caution. Talk to your doctor before making any changes to your child’s treatment, diet, or lifestyle.

Autism Diet

Some doctors advocate an autism diet. This means reducing or eliminating gluten and casein from the diet. Gluten is a protein that is found in the seeds of wheat and other grains, such as barley and rye. Gluten can be found in many food products and can be a source of digestive problems. Casein is a protein found in milk products, and may be another common source of digestive issues.

According to the Autism Society, the average American diet includes far more wheat and dairy products than is necessary, and both are sources of potential allergens. Additionally, these proteins can have a significant effect on behavior. According to the University of Florida Department of Pediatrics, this is because certain compounds of amino acid molecules (peptides) in gluten and casein bind to opioid receptors in the brain. This can mimic the effects of illicit drugs like heroin or morphine, causing:

  • sleepiness
  • giddiness
  • inattentive behavior, or “zoning out”
  • aggression
  • self-abusive behavior

The Autism Society recommends a trial gluten- and dairy-free diet. Improvements may be seen in as little as one to three months.

It’s important to make sure that your child is getting the nutrition they need. Children on a dairy-free diet may need to take calcium supplements or increase the amount of non-dairy, calcium-rich foods in their diet.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of “good fat” found in fish oils and in supplement form. They are known to help with brain development and function. According to the journal Biological Psychiatry, some small, early studies have shown that adding omega-3s to a child’s diet can improve hyperactive and repetitive behavior in those suffering from autism. Other studies published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology suggest that omega-3s could help improve social skills in children with an ASD.

Talk with your doctor or a professional dietician to discuss how best to add these healthy fats to your child’s diet.

Melatonin and Sleep

According to Autism Speaks, half of children diagnosed with an ASD also suffer from sleep disorders. Sleeplessness can exacerbate many of the symptoms of autism, and should not be ignored. A recent pilot study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that melatonin helped children with an ASD sleep better and decreased symptoms during the day. The study notes, however, that melatonin should only be used if autism itself is the cause of the sleep problems. If something else is causing the issue, that underlying problem must be addressed.

Chelation Therapy

Chelation therapy is designed to flush heavy metals from the body. There is no proof that this treatment works, and it may even be dangerous to some people. Chelation supposedly rids the body of mercury. However, there is no proven link between mercury and autism.

Relaxation Techniques

Some doctors or therapists will recommend calming techniques such as deep pressure massage or weighted clothing to soothe agitation in autistic patients.

The Takeaway

It’s important to stress that the vast majority of ASDs are not caused by any medical conditions that can be treated. None of these treatments can cure an ASD; they can only help limit symptoms. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that what works for one patient may not work for another. Your doctor should review any alternative method before it is used as part of your child’s treatment program.

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