Alternative Strategies

Many parents and caregivers of children with autism have begun to realize that an ASD diagnosis is just the tip of the iceberg, and that underlying pathologies exist that can respond to appropriate medical treatments.  As the vast majority of these treatments are accepted by the medical community for conditions other than “autism” they are still considered “alternative.”

The first go-to alternative treatment for autism often involves dietary intervention.  One of the most popular options is the Gluten-Free/Casein-Free (GF/CF) diet which removes wheat- and dairy-containing foods and supplements.  It is thought that incomplete digestion of the proteins found in gluten and casein can produce or magnify the symptoms of autism and that eliminating them from the diet can yield significant improvement in some individuals.  Other special diets include the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD), which eliminates hard-to-digest complex carbohydrates that feed harmful bacteria in the digestive system, and the Feingold diet which removes artificial colors and flavors and other synthetic additives from the diet.  Implementing one of these diets—and there are many others getting favorable reviews—is well worth the extra effort required to see if your child will be a successful responder. After all, gastrointestinal disturbances are one of the most frequently reported symptoms of individuals diagnosed with autism, and addressing GI distress through diet is a logical avenue to explore.

For children who don’t respond favorably to dietary interventions, or have recovered from GI symptoms enough to move on, keep in mind that a balanced diet of nutritional foods—organic whenever possible—is extremely important in achieving optimal health. Ensure that your child gets a vitamin- and mineral-rich diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as protein and whole grains. Avoid processed foods and sugary treats as well as artificial additives, and try to make sure your child eats a “rainbow of foods” each day.

In addition to dietary interventions, there are now myriad alternative treatment options. Below are just a few of the more popular protocols parents are researching and implementing for their children diagnosed with autism:

  • Vitamin B-12 Supplementation. Reportedly, many people with autism are deficient in vitamin B12 which is critical for proper brain and nervous system function, and is also essential for the metabolism of fats and carbohydrates and the synthesis of proteins.
  • Essential Fatty Acids. It is currently thought that inflammation may be an issue for some people with autism and essential fatty acids may be beneficial.  Omega-3s in particular have shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, and additionally are crucial for the health and development of the brain.
  • Anti-Fungal Treatment. Parents and practitioners often report yeast overgrowth in people with autism and indicate that treating with an anti-fungal alleviates some symptoms associated with autism.
  • Detoxification of Heavy Metals. As toxic metals are ubiquitous in the environment, it is impossible to completely avoid exposure to toxins such as mercury and lead. People with autism may have a decreased ability to eliminate toxins from their systems providing the rationale for detoxification including the use of chelation therapy.
  • Melatonin. Sleep issues are common in people diagnosed with autism.  Research suggests that melatonin is safe and effective in establishing improved sleep patterns in some ASD individuals.
  • Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy. The theory behind the use of hyperbaric therapy involves increasing the oxygen content of the body.  Some parents of children with autism are reporting improvement in autism symptoms following treatment in hyperbaric oxygen chambers.
  • Digestive Enzymes. To assist in proper digestion, many parents add digestive enzymes to their child’s dietary regime. Supplementation with enzymes may result in a reduction of issues associated with mal-digestion including bloating and gas, cramping, diarrhea or constipation, and food intolerances.

Before beginning any treatments for autism, be sure to research your options thoroughly and consult with your child’s health care provider to assist you in implementation.  For more information on alternative autism treatments, see:  What is Autism? And What Can I Do to Help My Child with Autism? by Nancy O’Hara, MD, and Gail Szakacs, MD (Autism File, Issue 34, pp. 15—19).

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