What Role Can Non-Traditional Treatments Play for Those With Autism?

By Sanjay Shah

Can non-traditional treatments play a role in the treatment of children and adults with autism spectrum disorder? According to a massive 2012 study, the answer is a tentative ‘yes.’

‘When combined with proven treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy, certain alternative therapies can improve outcomes and boost quality of life for autism-affected individuals.’ – Sanjay Shah

Here’s a look at effective — and not so effective — alternative treatments for ASD.

Music Really Matters

When administered by trained therapists in controlled sessions, music therapy has been shown to reduce the incidence of disruptive behaviours commonly associated with autism, mitigate inattentiveness, calm anxiety, improve communication, and strengthen relationships between autism-affected and non-autism-affected individuals. Plus, it’s really fun.

Probiotics: Calming Regularity

It’s not clear that probiotics directly mitigate classical symptoms of autism. However, regular administration improves digestion and regularity, reducing or removing a key stressor for children and adults on the spectrum. Probiotics have many unrelated health benefits too.

A Better Night’s Sleep With Melatonin?

Melatonin is a natural sleep aid by which many busy adults swear. Increasingly, it’s seen as an effective and safe calming agent for autism-affected individuals of all ages. Like probiotics, melatonin is not regarded as a substitute for medicines indicated for the treatment of classic autism symptoms. It’s merely a helpful complement.

Dietary Treatments: Unproven But Harmless?

Probiotics aren’t the only ingestible aid for children and adults with autism.

Though there’s limited evidence that these special diets dramatically improve behaviour, mood, anxiety, communication, and other indicators of autism, many parents and caregivers swear by their efficacy. Researchers and medical professionals generally regard them as safe, as well:

  • Gluten-free diets, which can improve digestion and energy levels for sensitive children
  • Casein-free diets, which remove a common dairy byproduct and may improve regularity and digestion for certain children
  • Omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce hyperactivity in small study groups
  • Multivitamins, which can deliver important nutrients for children unable to eat a full, balanced diet

Not All Non-Traditional Treatments Are Safe or Effective

Just as there’s a tremendous amount of information out there about autism’s likely causes, there’s a monstrous volume of misleading or simply inaccurate information about the effectiveness of various non-traditional treatments for autism.

Studies have yet to establish a convincing correlation between the dietary treatments described above and positive outcomes for individuals with ASD. However, the medical and scientific communities are largely in agreement that they’re not particularly harmful, provided autism-affected individuals can physically tolerate the special diets. Such special diets, such as those rich in vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids, may even have health benefits unrelated to ASD.

Treatments to Think Twice About

That’s not the case for all non-traditional autism treatments, however. Some are invasive, painful, or downright harmful to those receiving them. Whilst it’s important to note that the scientific consensus around such matters is always evolving, non-traditional treatments generally regarded as unsafe, invasive, and/or ineffective:

  • Acupuncture and acupressure (traditional Chinese medicine)
  • Chelation therapy (chemical injections intended to remove heavy metals and other toxins from the bloodstream)
  • Oral, topical, or intravenous antifungal drug injections (‘off-label,’ i.e. against the indication for which the drug is normally prescribed)
  • Intravenous human immunoglobulin injections

It’s not necessarily accurate to say that these treatments or therapies have no medical benefit under any circumstances, only that they are generally regarded as counterproductive (and, in some cases, unsafe) when used as non-traditional autism treatments.

The Best Treatment Love Can Buy

We’ve learned more about autism in the past decade than in the preceding three. We still know far too little about the disorder’s causes and progression, but we know enough to know that there are many effective treatments.

Your child is entitled to treatment that improves his or her quality of life and allows you to enjoy as much quality family time together as possible. His or her treatment plan won’t look the same as his or her classmate’s. That’s okay.

The most important thing you can do for your child — and yourself — is to work with a trusted team of medical providers who incorporate the latest research and best practices into their approaches to autism treatment. With your love and support, and a research-based treatment regimen that balances expected outcomes with quality of life considerations, your child can thrive. Your family deserves nothing less.

Bio: Sanjay Shah the founder of Autism Rocks, a charitable organisation that raises awareness about autism through charitable music events