Alternative Treatments for Autism, What May Work

Alternative treatments for autism

If your child has autism spectrum disorder, you have probably tried some type of alternative treatments, according to a new study. But do you know which alternative treatments for autism may work, which ones are worth a second look, and the ones that require much more research?

Three alternative treatments for autism are recommended

The uncertainties surrounding the treatment of autism and concerns about side effects of prescribed medications have led more than half of parents of children with autism to try complementary and alternative treatments. A review team composed of experts from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and Ohio State University (OSU) recently reported that three of 19 alternative treatments for autism could be recommended while a few others warranted further investigation.

The three recommended alternative treatments include melatonin, multivitamin/mineral supplements, and massage therapy. “There is some good scientific evidence for these,” explained Nicholas Lofthouse, PhD, the review’s lead author and Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at OSU, “and they also seem sensible, easy, and relatively cheap and safe.”

The authors also named some alternative treatments they believe are worthy of further investigation and trials, including a combination of vitamin B6 and magnesium, chelation (only in children with confirmed heavy metal toxicity), folic acid, omega-3, L-carnosine, probiotics and medication for gastrointestinal problems, iron supplementation, animal-assisted therapy, music therapy, acupuncture, and exercise.

At the same time, the reviewers pointed out a few therapies they said “failed to show positive effects across several randomized control trials.” They included gluten-free and/or casein-free diets, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, secretin, auditory integration therapy, facilitated communication, electro-aversive therapy, or packing therapy.

An additional 55 alternative therapies reportedly had insufficient evidence to evaluate them. Indeed, options such as the use of video games to help improve communication skills, treatment with the love hormone oxytocin, and a Japanese herbal remedy all require additional research.

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About the 3 alternative treatments
Lofthouse explained that he and his colleagues recommend parents first consider conventional treatments before turning to alternatives. A complete diagnostic evaluation should be conducted before complementary remedies are tried, including blood tests to identify any deficiencies or excessive levels of nutrients or other substances.

Robert Hendren, DO, one of the study’s coauthors and professor and vice chair of the Department of Psychiatry at UCSF, noted that in his practice, he has found that melatonin (2 or 3 mg/d to start, up to 9 mg/d if necessary) is beneficial for kids with autism who have sleep problems. Melatonin also helps regulate the body and offers immune protection as well.

Hendren recommends the use of high-potency multivitamins because children with autism often are deficient in some nutrients. He, in addition to other research teams, have evaluated the use of multivitamins/minerals and individuals nutrients in children with autism and have observed positive results in some kids.

In the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, a review team evaluated six studies that involved the use of massage therapy for children with autism. All of the study results indicated massage may be effective for children with autism.

Specifically, one trial found that massage plus conventional language therapy was better than language therapy alone for symptom severity and communication attitude. The other trials found that massage resulted in a significant benefit regarding adaptive behavior, language and social abilities, social communication, and sensory profile, although further studies are highly recommended.

The bottom line
“Often, parents want to consider anything that might help their child,” noted Hendren. Any parent who wants to try alternative treatments for autism should consult their healthcare providers and discuss viable options for their child.

Kaplan A. Complementary and alternative treatments for autism spectrum disorder. Psychiatric Times 2013 Mar. 13
Lee MS et al. Massage therapy for children with autism spectrum disorders: a systematic review. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 2011 Mar; 72(3): 406-11
Lofthouse N et al. A review of complementary and alternative treatments for autism spectrum disorders. Autism Research Treatment 2012 Nov 28; [Epub]. doi:10.1155/2012/870391.

Image: Morguefile