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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

Boy Dies After Controversial Treatment for Autism

Experts: Chelation Therapy Not Worth the Risk
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Parents' Options

That isn't what pediatrician Susan Hyman, MD, would recommend. Hyman, an autism researcher at the University of Rochester, N.Y., has studied complementary and alternative treatments for autism.

"When you have no cause and no cure, you have a lot of frustration," Hyman tells WebMD. "As a doctor you can prescribe chelation for autism, but the efficacy just hasn't been demonstrated."

So why do so many parents say it works? Hyman says that most parents who try chelation don't give up on other, more effective treatments for their children. But when the kids improve, they think it is chelation that did the trick.

"Many advocates of unproven treatments, such as parents of young children with autism, have such hope and desire that an unproven treatment is going to work that they do discern an improvement," Hyman says.

But Rubin insists that uncertain benefits are no reason to subject children to known risks. Instead of trying risky treatments, he advises parents that there are many things known to work.

"I say to parents who want to try chelation, 'If I was in your position, I would feel as eager as you to do anything for my child,'" he says. "But what works is active, intensive, occupational therapy. What works is speech therapy, horseback-riding therapy, swimming. Parents, you do more than you realize by being loving and caring. We don't know where your child is going to go developmentally, but we will make sure they get to the best they can go."

A Call for Research

Bernard says the Pennsylvania boy's death underscores the need for more research on chelation treatment.

"If we had research so that we knew, number one, does chelation work or not work, and number two, what is the best way to do it, then any parent could make a better decision based on evidence-based medicine," she says. "Now every parent is left to his or her own resources. Obviously some parents may not know the right way to do this. If we had some science, everybody would be better off."

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