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So, what are some of these therapies - first and foremost is diet. The Autism Research Institute has the DAN Protocol and diet and nutrition play a primary role.
Every parent on the planet wants the best for their child—the best education, the best future, the best job, the best health.  When, as a parent, you get a diagnosis of any kind, it is a frightening and confusing experience. What are the best choices, what are the best treatments, what are the odds my child will get better, what will happen to my child, will he or she suffer?  When the diagnosis of autism is made, so many people still worry that there IS no treatment, their child will always need to be taken care of—that there is no hope. 

Well, this is just not true—there is hope, there are treatments, and you do have choices.

Autism is what is known as a spectrum disorder—this means that autism can range from barely noticeable to profound-- a child with autism may function very well-or very poorly, depending on where they are on the spectrum. The core problem is with communication, behavior and social interactions. The problems usually develop before the age of 3—and boys are affected 3-4 times as much as girls are.  And—the rates of autism are rising….fast.  The usual mainstream opinion is a “pat-ourselves-on-the-back, we-are-so-good-at-diagnosing” approach.  My opinion is….not so much.

First of all, in a recent article in the Washington Post, the author of a recent study on the early diagnosis of autism,(where up to half the kids with autism were diagnosed early after parents filled out a questionnaire), was quoted saying “Half is better than none. Most pediatricians still aren’t doing any screening” If most pediatricians aren’t screening, how are we so much better at diagnosis?  In 2009, the rate of autism reported in the US hit 1 out of every 100 kids  which is closer to the rates being reported around the world. In 2007, the rate was reported at 1kid out of 150. Before 1985 the incidence was reported at 1 out of every 2-3000 kids. Part of these numbers CAN be explained with better diagnosis and a broader, better definition and understanding of what autism is—but, as Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health was quoted as saying "Buried in these numbers there may be a true increase."

So, what are the causes of autism?

At a recent symposium, Drs Lawrence Rosen and Patrick Hanaway presented data and a systems-biology and functional medicine approach to autism.  Systems biology is the holistic approach to understanding how various organs and systems work together—as a system. 

Functional medicine is an individualized, patient-centered approach to medicine,  recognizing that each individual is biochemically unique, that maintaining health is a dynamic process of balancing the various biological system and that there these systems are connected by a web of interactions—if you change the gut bacterial populations, you change the immune response.

While we don’t know the cause—or causes—of autism, the new belief is that many factors affect whether a child has autism—these factors are genetic, environmental, immunological and others, and  we have to think about how all these systems interact.  For example, high mercury levels in one child can “tip” the balance toward autism, while in another child with a different genetic background and environment, high mercury levels may not be enough and a disrupted immune system—because of a viral infection—may represent the tipping point. The current thinking then, is that there are many causes but different causes for different children.  This is part of what makes research into autism particularly challenging.

Current therapies for autism include behavioral, occupational, speech and physical therapies.  Many autistic kids are on one or more potent anti-psychotic medications to control behaviors. Recent studies have shown a significant increase in the prescription of these anti-psychotics, which carry along with them serious adverse effects.  Furthermore, many of these drugs have never been tested on kids.  But, according to at least one study, it turns out the 95% of parents of autistic kids look to complementary and alternative therapies to help their kids.  Wow.

CAM Therapies for Autism

So, what ARE some of these therapies—first and foremost is diet. The Autism Research Institute (ARI) has the DAN (Defeat Autism Now) Protocol—diet and nutrition play a primary role. Generally, a whole foods, organic diet is suggested—most common is the Gluten-free-Casein-free diet  where gluten and dairy products are totally avoided. Other diets used are the Specific Carbohydrate diet  and the Feingold diet. The dietary approach often includes the use of specific vitamins and supplements, digestive enzymes and probiotics.  In one study from the ARI, 66% of autistic kids showed some improvement after dietary changes had been made.

The specific vitamins and supplements used are designed to deal with each person’s unique biochemistry and what their particular needs are.  The digestive enzymes are often used to ensure that the child obtains the full nutrition—and that the digestive system is given time to heal.  Probiotics are one of the most important aspects of the dietary approach—it is becoming clearer and clearer that if the gut bacteria are not happy, the gut isn’t happy either—and if the gut isn’t happy—well, neither are we! 
Biomedical treatments are also used—these include detoxification approaches such as chelation therapy, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, vitamin B12 shots and Nambudripad's Allergy Elimination Techniques (NAET). Many CAM practitioners will also do further work with both the children and their family in ensuring that the environment—the home, school and workplace—are as toxin free as possible.  The practitioners will also work to strengthen and heal or re-balance various systems such as the digestive system, the immune system and brain.  Counseling and behavioral therapies are also a mainstay of most approaches.

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  • 3. Integrative Healthcare Symposium, NYC, Mar4-6,
  • 4. Towbin, K., Gaining: Pediatric Patients and Use of Atypical Antipsychotics, Am J Psychiatry 163:2034-2036, December 2006.
  • 5. Harrington JW, Rosen L, Garnecho A, Patrick PA., Parental perceptions and use of complementary and alternative medicine practices for children with autistic spectrum disorders in private practice. J Dev Behav Pediatr - 01-APR-2006, 27(2 Suppl): S156-61
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  • Photo courtesy of Becky Wetherington by Flickr :