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Caution Urged for Autism Treatments

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

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.

The goal of these types of programs is to reinforce desirable behavior and decrease undesirable ones. For instance, the child is taught to perform tasks in a series of simple steps and is given a predictable schedule. The treatment is continued at home.

"Occupational therapy is often given in combination," Mulick says.

The downside of the behavior therapy, he says, is its expense. At Columbus Children's Hospital, for instance, he estimates the cost of behavior therapy for autism is about $65,000 a year -- and it's typically not covered by insurance.

For specific symptoms, medication may help, Mulick says. For instance, the FDA approved Risperdal in 2006 for the treatment of irritability in children and teens with autism. Short attention spans can sometimes be improved, he says, with stimulant drugs.

Other Views

Not everyone agrees with Mulick that behavioral therapy and medication are the primary routes to go for treating autistic children. Julie Buckley, MD, says some treatments termed fads by Mulick "are not fads and are in fact effective." Buckley is a member of the scientific advisory board for the National Autism Association, an organization launched by parents and based in Nixa, Mo.

"There is a great deal of [scientific] literature showing the GFCF diet works," Buckley tells WebMD. ''The process of detoxification, whether by chelation or other means is -- case report by case report -- showing itself to be of tremendous benefit to many children."

She's not aware of published scientific studies on facilitated communication or dolphin therapy, she says. But she has seen auditory integration work for children. In her practice near Jacksonville, Fla., Buckley says she uses a variety of "alternative" methods to help her young patients with autism.

Another organization, Cure Autism Now, notes on its web site that early intervention with behavioral education, special education, family support, and medications can all help a child with autism. Regarding alternative therapies, it says "there also are a number of alternative therapies available for children with autism. However, few have been supported by scientific studies. Parents should research the providers and the treatment before beginning a course of non-traditional therapy."

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