Embracing the diversity of autism to find personalized treatment.
Autism is a complex biomedical condition that manifests in multiple ways. While its common core symptoms are well-known and include impaired social interaction and communication, as well as behaviors that are restricted and repetitive, when you scratch the surface just a little it’s remarkable just how markedly different each and every child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is.
Conventional medicine tries its hardest to dismiss these dissimilarities in order to generically categorize ASD patients for ease of diagnosis. Homeopathy uses a different approach, teasing out the differences and unique characteristics within the particulars of each case, and attempting to understand the larger context of each particular set of symptoms—for example, what brings the symptoms on? What does the child do to deal with them?
Homeopathy is a medical practice that first began in the last decade of the 18th century in Germany. It was founded by Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, whose study of conventional medicine led him to explore the idea of using medicinal substances to treat the same set of symptoms in diseases they could cause if given to a healthy person. He first made this connection when examining notes on the use of quinine (from the plant cinchona), which, in addition to curing the symptoms of malaria, could also cause very similar symptoms when given to a healthy individual, and it forms the most fundamental law of homeopathy: the law of similars. A second, and less important, tenet of homeopathic medical science is the potentization of the remedies through a process of serial dilutions and vigorous mixing, often in an alcohol solution.
Many sub-branches of alternative medicine have either grown out of classical homeopathy or share commonalities, including sequential homeopathy, homotoxicology, gemmotherapy, oligotherapy and CEASE (Complete Elimination of Autistic Spectrum Expression) therapy. One way in which classical homeopathy differs from these other methodologies is in its central reliance on finding a single (sometimes called “constitutional”) remedy that fits the totality of the mental, emotional and physical symptoms. This remedy, when chosen correctly, appears to stimulate the body’s innate ability to heal and rebalance itself in a deep and lasting way. Although homeopathy’s fundamental mechanism of action has not been fully elucidated, what has been repeatedly observed is the ability of homeopathy to systemically stimulate the body’s ability to heal and rebalance itself.
“Whole Patient” Approach
A classical homeopathic consultation may last many hours and will tend to investigate everything from the in-utero stage, via questions about how a patient’s mom experienced pregnancy, and a family medical history, to the major life stresses, medical procedures, personality characteristics, quirks, obsessions, and clinical symptoms of the patient.
A prescribed remedy might be taken either daily, weekly, or monthly depending on the dosage and the homeopath involved, but commonly the initial follow-up will take place after a month. At times, finding the optimal remedy takes place over the course of multiple visits where the particular outcome of one remedy may indicate the need for a different but related remedy.
Homeopathic remedies, probably due to the low material doses they contain, do not tend to result in the major side effects sometimes seen with pharmaceuticals. However, like any medicine natural or synthetic, a remedy’s purpose is to cause a reaction. Sometimes when the correct remedy is given, “aggravations” can occur, which means that there is a temporary worsening of symptoms before improvement occurs (similar to what might happen with the use of a vaccine that prompts an initial immune response). In children with ASDs, these aggravations may be fevers or acute illnesses, or temporary worsening of chronic symptoms like stimming or particular behaviors. From the homeopathic perspective of the healing process, care should be taken not to “suppress” these new symptoms with medications if they don’t pose a significant danger to the child, as these symptoms are often a result of the body’s natural healing response.
A Constellation Of Symptoms
Claire, eight, is a great example of how homeopathy truly embraces and seeks out the diversity inherent to this group in order to achieve personalized treatment. She was diagnosed with ASD, generalized anxiety disorder, and seizures, and was exhibiting regular meltdowns and aggressive behaviors. An aspect of Claire’s case that particularly stood out for its severity and dominating presence, was her tendency to be very controlling of her mom. If her mom didn’t respond to her, Claire escalated to physical violence, and her mom described her as irrational to the point of being “like a wild animal” if restrained.
Claire’s mother had done years of biomedical treatments, and had dabbled with some homeopathy for acute illnesses; however, the larger picture of Claire’s symptoms had not been addressed. After our consult, a constitutional homeopathic remedy, Hyoscyamus 30c, was prescribed. The initial response from Claire’s mom, two weeks after receiving the remedy, suggested that Claire had been transformed. Her aggressive behavior had decreased, she was trying new foods after having been a selective eater, and some of her obsessive behaviors, such as insisting on wearing the same handful of pink and blue shirts all the time, were relaxing. Some negative symptoms persisted: Claire continued stimming and having energy highs and lows, and still had trouble falling asleep. But over time, these other symptoms began to subside while positive gains continued with further timely dosing of Hyoscyamus.
The Zig-Zag Line Of Treatment
I often tell parents that with the correct homeopathic remedy, the healing path is like a zig-zag line moving upwards. There will be ups and downs, but the overall movement is positive.
In Claire’s case, a uniquely identifying aspect of her pathology and imbalance was a deep-seated sense of abandonment and fear for her very survival. This basic, animalistic fear underpinned her outbursts of physical violence, which were uninhibited in much the same way as is sometimes seen with a cornered or injured animal. Hyoscyamus is known for its ability to address a deeply neurological constellation of symptoms, in which irrational and uninhibited behaviors, as well as deep fears, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorders (OCD), and even severe seizure activity, stem from an underlying pathology and imbalance of the central nervous system. In addition, there is often a very strong need to control other people in order to have one safe place within the chaos of fear and emptiness experienced.
Does this mean that every child who has aggressive controlling behaviors needs Hyoscyamus? The answer is an emphatic no. There are over 5,000 homeopathic remedies, each for a specific sequence of symptoms, pattern of behavior, or etiology of disease and imbalance. Well-trained classical homeopaths spend years studying the profiles of each remedy and learning tools for differentiating and understanding the complex symptom pictures of individual patients, and the depth of this analysis cannot be sufficiently replaced with simple prescriptive use of the remedies for one-to-one disease correlations.
Taking The Time To Diagnose
I often ask parents to repeat the gesture or behavior of the child during their most severe symptoms, to give us a feeling of what the child might be experiencing at that time. I asked the parents of Zach, age five and diagnosed with autism, to tell me what they thought his hand-flapping was like for him, and his dad said, “There’s a tightness—he’ll stretch out his arms and open and close his fists. Tight across the shoulders, you can’t stretch out. He doesn’t want to be enclosed: something is constricting him. It makes him feel suffocated, like he can’t breathe. He wants to stretch out. It’s like he’s trying to get out of water to get air, trying to get to the surface to breathe. It’s desperation.”
Contrast this feeling with the hand-flapping of Ryan, age seven, who has ASD and pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections (PANDAS). His mom described Ryan’s flapping and fluttering of his fingers as relaxing. “It’s soothing,” she said. “Like an energy. It feels good, happy, like a rush of adrenaline. He wants to dance, and share and express.”
We can see in the first case, the hand-flapping is a release of tension and restriction, especially in the chest. In the second case, the hand flapping is about the release of joy, weightlessness and a certain freedom of expression. The difference in the deeper expression and utility of each of these gestures, among other differences between these children, led to the prescription of two very different remedies despite the physical similarity of the hand-flapping.
Investigating feelings and sensations behind each symptom is just one technique that a classical homeopath might use to help identify a “constitutional remedy.” Another approach is a deep and detailed look into what happened during the mom’s pregnancy and delivery.
If a pattern of behavior or a strong trauma occurs during pregnancy or delivery, and that pattern relates to some of the observable behavior of the child, that correspondence can be a very strong clue in the support of a specific homeopathic remedy.
David, 11, has autism and poor communication. He had a traumatic birth—stuck in the birth canal for many hours, he was eventually delivered with vacuum extraction, which resulted in a large, round bruise at the top of his head. He has had strong sensory issues and physical discomfort around his head since infancy: whenever he gets upset, he refers to his teeth and when he smiles, there’s a tight line of tension in the jaw line. He has always needed a lot of deep pressing on his face and teeth and jaw to help counteract the discomfort.
David was prescribed Helleborus, a remedy often prescribed for head trauma resulting in stuck and stiff sensation of the bones, as well as severe deficits in memory and cognitive function. Within the first three weeks of taking the remedy, his mother reported that he seemed “at peace” with himself. He was experiencing much less frustration, and “kissing it better” was easing the discomfort in his face and jaw, as opposed to the previous need to press on those areas that bothered him. Communication hasn’t magically resolved, but the treatment with Helleborus has helped release the tension in his cranial bones, and he’s doing better and progressing much faster in school.
Easing Emotional Trauma
Anna, age seven, is on the spectrum and has bad digestive issues and unpredictable meltdowns, the worst of which are triggered if demands are placed on her. Even if you call her name, she’ll respond in an angry, curt fashion. Her digestive issues, including bloating, cause her to frequently bend double and press her stomach, especially when she is upset or angry.
Anna’s mother revealed that she had been extremely depressed during her pregnancy, and her feelings of sadness were exacerbated by an unsympathetic employer who constantly belittled her work and was inflexible when it came to her pregnancy symptoms. She described one particularly unpleasant fight and told me, “If I could kill him I would, with my bare hands.”
Anna was prescribed the remedy Colocynthis, known in the homeopathic literature for its “mortification caused by offense, ailments after anger and silent grief,” as well as “agonizing pain in the abdomen causing the patient to bend double.” Perhaps most unique to the remedy is the particular juxtaposition of these symptoms. Just as in the case with Anna, the remedy is notable for intense stomach cramping and pain that comes on as a result of anger. After taking the remedy, Anna’s big temper tantrums have stopped, her sleeping and appetite are improved, she’s more cooperative in therapy, and her parents are pleased that they can now take her shopping without risking a scene.
Trusting Natural Healing
In the above examples, a constitutional remedy will be helpful in improving these cases for many months, if not years. Depending on the severity of the case, a good remedy can completely turn a case around, helping mental, emotional and physical symptoms, and often removing the need for multiple supplements or medications.
However, to be truly successful, classical homeopathy takes a degree of commitment and understanding on the part of the parents. Beyond the initial requirement of knowing their child well enough to accurately describe their symptom picture, parents must be patient, and observe the big picture without getting lost in the endless ups and downs of individual symptoms as the child progresses. Furthermore, homeopathic treatment requires a recalibration of trust towards the body’s natural healing ability—we’re quick to turn to forceful medications, but our over-reliance on external fixes may have an important role in the medical crisis in which we find ourselves today.
Ultimately, in treating the underlying cause of disease, and supporting the body’s natural ability to heal and balance itself, homeopathy can induce healing changes that are deep, systemic, and lasting. In ASD, homeopathy represents an incredibly important modality because it brings a unique approach to understanding, describing, and prescribing for the individual, sifting through a group of potential diagnoses across a range of etiologies, pathologies, unique circumstances, and complex stories. Our personal experience is that it is precisely this point that makes homeopathy such an effective medicine within such a complex set of disorders.