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Finding the Right Autism Treatment

Early, intense therapy works, but hundreds of other treatments being used are untested.

Chelation for Autism

Although most researchers do not think so, many parents are struck by similarities between some of the symptoms of mercury poisoning and autism. Some of these parents seek chelation therapy for their children, which uses a chemical that helps the body eliminate heavy metals.

Hyman notes that there is no evidence that removing heavy metals from the body undoes damage caused by heavy-metal poisoning. But many parents believe their children's ASD symptoms improved after the treatment.

Swedo and colleagues at the NIMH have designed a clinical trial to test this treatment, but the study is in limbo as the NIMH review board feels the known risks of the treatment outweigh the evidence that it might work. Meanwhile, Swedo says, a group of practitioners called Defeat Autism Now, which promotes chelation and other complementary/alternative autism treatments, is completing a study of the treatment.

Most of the researchers who spoke with WebMD for this article expressed the opinion that chelation is both ineffective for autism and dangerous; none advise parents to try it.

Gluten-Free Casien-Free (GFCF) Diet for Autism

Many parents of children with autism believe that their children suffer from an inability to digest wheat and/or dairy products. Some who have put their children on gluten-free/casien-free diets report seeing remarkable changes in their children's behavior.

This GFCF diet has become one of the most commonly used treatments for autism, despite concerns that ASD kids -- who tend to be very picky eaters -- may become undernourished by following a GFCF diet.

A highly regarded 1995 study suggested that ASD kids on a GFCF diet for one year had fewer autistic traits. However, preliminary results from a randomized, controlled clinical trial did not show a benefit.

More rigorous randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials of the GFCF diet -- including one by Hyman -- are under way.

CAM for Autism

Surveys suggest that nine out of 10 parents treat their child's autism with some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). These include both nonbiological treatments such as dolphin-assisted therapy and biological treatments such as dietary supplements.

Most of CAM treatments have either positive parent reports or small, inconclusive studies suggesting they might work. For many, there are inconclusive studies suggesting they are not helpful. In almost all cases, there is no definitive proof that they help, and no rigorous safety studies.

The number of treatments on this list is very large. A list compiled by Hyman includes:

  • Dietary restriction of known allergens
  • Intravenous immunogloblulins (IVIG)
  • Antiviral drugs
  • Chelation via DMSA, lipoic acid, clay baths, and natural chelating agents
  • Digestive enzymes
  • Probiotics
  • Yeast-free diet
  • Antifungal agents
  • The Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD)
  • Antibiotic therapy
  • Vitamin B-6 and magnesium
  • Vitamin C
  • Folic acid
  • Vitamin B-12
  • Dimethylglycine (DMG)
  • Tryptophan and tyrosine supplementation
  • Periactin (the antihistamine cyproheptadine)
  • Carnosine supplementation
  • Omega-3 fatty acids or polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA)
  • Auditory Integration Training (AIT)
  • Behavioral Optometry
  • Craniosacral manipulation
  • Facilitated communication
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