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Alternative Therapies Widely Used for Autism

Study finds many parents use them alongside conventional treatments to try to manage symptoms


But education did seem to play a role. Children with at least one parent who had finished college were about twice as likely to be using a complementary therapy as kids with less-educated parents.

The most common complementary treatments reported by parents were considered to be relatively safe. Those included dietary supplements and special diets. Nearly one in four parents reported turning to specialized nutritional products (multivitamins and gummies weren't counted). And almost one in five kids in the study was on a gluten-free, casein-free diet, which cuts out the proteins found in wheat and milk.

About 9 percent of children in the study were using therapies that were unproven, invasive or potentially unsafe. Those included the use of antifungal drugs to treat yeast infections, vitamin B-12 injections and chelation (a controversial treatment used to remove metals from the body).

"These complementary and alternative treatments are occurring much more commonly than traditional doctors often think," said Dr. Eric Hollander, a psychiatrist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center, in New York City.

Hollander said it was important for parents to let their doctors know if they decide to try any kind of complementary treatment.

"I've had patients who've had benefits from various complementary approaches, but I've had patients who've had side effects as well," said Hollander, who treats children with autism.

"As a clinician, I like to keep an open mind, and I'm interested in what parents are reading or thinking about. And I want them to be able to approach it in a systematic fashion, where they give it a limited trial and see if there's any benefit," he said.

The problem many families face, he said, is that they try too many things at the same time. Then it's hard to figure out what's working and what isn't.

"The key is to have a good working relationship with your doctor so you can sort out the benefits and risks," he said.

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