Parents Try Alternative Treatments for Autism
Research Shows Gluten-Free and Casein-Free Diets Are Among Treatments for Kids' Autism
WebMD News Archive
May 3, 2010 -- Many families are turning toward to special diets and/or
psychotropic medications to help better manage autism spectrum disorder and its
symptoms in their children, two new studies show.
The CDC estimates that about one in 110 children in the U.S. have an
autism spectrum disorder, the umbrella name given to a group of disorders that
can range from the mild to the severe that often affect social and
One study shows that 21% of children with autism spectrum disorder are using
complementary and alternative medical therapies. Of these, 17% were on special
diets, most commonly a gluten-free or casein-fee diet.
Another study shows that more than one-quarter of children with autism
spectrum disorder receive at least one psychotropic medication to treat some of
their behavioral symptoms such as hyperactivity or irritability.
Both studies were presented at the Pediatric Academy Societies annual
meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, and were sponsored by the Autism
Treatment Network, a network of 14 centers across the U.S. and Canada that is
focused on developing standards of care for treating children with autism
"Complementary medicine is used for all sorts of things such as arthritis
and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), so to see it being used
for children on the spectrum is pretty much expected," says Daniel Coury, MD,
chief of developmental behavioral pediatrics at Nationwide Children's Hospital
in Columbus, Ohio, and the medical director of the Autism Treatment
"Families may be looking at complementary treatment because traditional
medical treatments may not be doing the job for their child," he says. There is
some anecdotal evidence that these diets may improve symptoms among some
children with autism.
Parents need to make sure that their child's doctors are aware of what they
are taking as some alternative therapies may have side effects on their own or
when used in combination with other therapies, he says.
The study shows that younger children with autism were less likely than
older kids to receive psychotropic medications. Sixty percent of children aged
11 and older took one psychotropic drug, compared with 44% of children aged 6
to 10, 11% of children ages 3 to 5, and 4% of children under age 3. The most
commonly used medications were stimulants to help treat ADHD symptoms and a
drug called risperidone, which is prescribed to treat irritability. Older
children were more likely to be taking more than one psychotropic drug, the
The study raises some questions about how, when, and even why these
medications are being used in autism treatment, Coury says.
"It may be that parents and doctors are not treating these children when
they are first diagnosed, which usually occurs at very young ages," Coury says.
But "as the diagnosis is established, there is a higher likelihood of
medications being prescribed. Or the use of these drugs may reflect those
children who are more severely affected or don't have access to other
nonmedical treatments such as intensive behavioral therapies," he says.
Children who are diagnosed with autism often see numerous specialists
several times a week for various types of speech and behavioral therapy.
But "if these therapies are not available, parents may reach for plan B or
plan C," he says.