In a new study, 40 percent of families with children who have autism or other developmental disorders said they use alternative medicine to treat their children, along with conventional therapies. The findings, published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, were based on a survey of families in Northern California.
The higher the family’s education level, the more likely they were to pursue alternative medicine treatments, and to greater and more invasive extremes. Non-Hispanic white families were also more likely to try these treatments.
Complementary or alternative medicine (CAM) describes an array of treatments that are not widely accepted by the medical community. They range from low-risk treatments like meditation, homeopathy, and special diets to more invasive therapies, such as blood chelation and immunoglobulin injections.
A Constellation of Symptoms
“The therapies with the best evidence base are behavioral and educational interventions,” said study leader Robin Hansen, M.D., director at the Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities at the MIND Institute at the University of California, Davis. “However, not all children with autism respond equally well, likely due to the heterogeneity of autism.”
‘Heterogeneity’ means that children with autism may have overlapping but often quite different symptoms. Autism typically causes social difficulties and repetitive behaviors, and it can include intellectual disabilities. But some autistic children also have other symptoms, including insomnia, irritability, hyperactivity, and digestive troubles.
“Having two children on opposite ends of the autism spectrum, I have learned just how different these kids are,” said Christi Hammond, a Northern California mother of two autistic children, in an interview with Healthline. “Every child is unique and individual and different, and you want to treat the individual, not the diagnosis.”
Hammond uses conventional treatments for her sons, Andrew, age 14, and Nathan, age 8. They use Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), a form of in-home therapy. Both boys also receive stabilizing medication—Andrew for aggression and seizures and Nathan for hyperactivity.
But that wasn’t enough to get the boys healthy. Andrew still had aggressive outbursts and severe insomnia. And both boys had gastrointestinal problems.
To treat them, Hammond worked with Dr. Jerry Kartzinel, the same doctor who treated actress Jenny McCarthy’s autistic son.
Both Andrew and Nathan’s symptoms improved after Hammond switched them to a gluten-free, dairy-free diet. For Andrew, a stool analysis also showed major imbalances in his gut flora. Rounds of antifungal and antibiotic medication cleared up the problem, and Andrew’s aggression and insomnia evaporated.
“I had my sweet happy boy back again,” said Hammond. “It made me an instant believer in alternative medicine. No ABA can get your kid to do that.”
Hammond isn’t the only one whose child has benefited from dietary changes. Hansen’s study found that the most common form of CAM used to treat autism was dietary supplements.
And 7 percent of the autistic children in the study were on a gluten-free, casein-free diet. A study published last year found that there may be a direct link between autism and microorganisms in the gut, so these treatments may one day enter the domain of conventional medicine. However, many other alternative treatments for autism are untested.
Hammond appreciates Kartzinel’s approach, which started with low-impact, natural remedies before escalating. “He’ll start off with the least invasive, then as he feels it's needed, he’ll take it up a notch,” she said. “I look at it like a ladder—you keep on climbing the ladder until you get the results you need and want.”
In addition to diet modification, Hammond also tried Andrew on music therapy, hyperbaric oxygen treatments, chelation, and years of immunoglobulin infusions.
Most families do not pursue more extreme therapies like chelation, which filters heavy metals from the blood, and intravenous immunoglobulin, which introduces antibodies into the bloodstream. Such therapies are expensive, time-consuming, and painful, and may be dangerous for the child.
The study reports that about 4 percent of parents have tried treatments that are "potentially unsafe, invasive, or unproven."
Hammond stressed that it was a combination of conventional and CAM therapies that finally helped her sons. “I have tried both and found both to work," she said. "I have Andrew in a healthier, more stable place, even though [he] still doesn’t talk and still has a long way to go, and I feel like the alternative medicine has done some amazing stuff.”
Hansen urges parents to consider the trade-off between the risks of a given treatment and the evidence supporting its use. “Safety for any treatment depends on how it is used and monitored,” she told Healthline. “In making decisions about any treatment, we hope that families will talk with their health care providers about what evidence there is for efficacy in treating a particular symptom or disorder and what are the potential risks to safety and health.”