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 communication abilities.
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 spectrum disorder.
"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 Network.
"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 study shows.
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.