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Caution Urged for Autism Treatments

Researchers Say 'Fad Therapies' for Autism Are on the Rise

Fad Treatments Abound

Among the autism treatments that Mulick and his colleagues cautioned against at the APA convention:

  • Facilitated communication. A facilitator holds the hands of those with autism over a keyboard and helps them to communicate. Or a facilitator helps the person with autism communicate by pointing at letters, images, or symbols that represent messages. The goal is independent expression, according to advocates. "In no case was it shown to be a valid communication" for the autistic person, Mulick says.
  • Chelation therapy. A chemical that binds to heavy metals -- believed by some to cause autism -- is given orally, rectally, or infused intravenously, Mulick says. "The chemical binds to heavy metals and allows the heavy metals to be excreted, and the belief is it will cure autism." But chelation therapy is unproven for autism, Mulick says.
  • Dolphin therapy. Advocates believe swimming with dolphins can help an autistic child improve interpersonal relationships. Says Mulick: ''There is no evidence it supports any effect except recreation."
  • Auditory integration therapy. Developed by an ear-nose-throat doctor, this therapy originally was meant to help those with hypersensitive hearing. The theory is that the person is overstimulated and the hearing is overly sensitive at specific frequencies. The therapy involves listening to music at different frequencies to normalize the hearing response across all frequencies within the normal hearing range. "This is based on the theory that kids with autism will often hold their ears," Mulick says, and that they are overly sensitive to sound. "They do hold their ears, but they don't have greater hearing acuity."
  • Dietary interventions. The gluten-free, casein-free diet, or GFCF diet, is another approach. Casein is a protein found in milk and cheese, and gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. The theory, says Mulick, is that in autistic children these proteins result in an overproduction of opiates in the brain, in turn contributing to social awkwardness and thwarting brain maturation. Scientific studies on the effectiveness of the GFCF diet are lacking, he says. "And very few people adhere to the diet."

Autism Treatment: What Works?

An intensive approach using behavior therapy, often called applied behavior analysis, is uniformly recommended by experts, including a recommendation by the U.S. surgeon general. The basic research for this approach was done years ago at the University of California, Los Angeles. This program is intensive -- one-on-one for 40 hours a week. Similar programs are offered in major metropolitan areas around the country, Mulick says.

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