I know I am not the only parent who is thinking about the best treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). As a healthcare provider and a parent of a child with autism, it is on my mind daily, sometimes multiple times per day. My inclination has always been to seek out and use alternative treatments for Autism before turning to medication, which include many of the biomedical treatments for autism. I have been reading and researching different ASD treatments, especially high-functioning Autism treatment, since the category into which my daughter and some of my patients fall.
It is really hard to know where to start. Do you start with ABA Intervention? Early Intervention Services run by the state where you live? What about diet, supplements, and other treatments and interventions for ASD?
Diet: An Everyday Autism Intervention
Many of us have sensitivities to foods, whether we recognize them or not. It’s the same with our kids with ASD. The complicating factor is that many times, they cannot communicate to us how they feel after eating a certain food, or don’t realize that it affects them.
Gluten, dairy, soy, and corn are some of the most common foods to which people (especially our ASD kids) have sensitivities and sometimes even allergies. But it doesn’t have to be a full-fledged allergy to cause problems. Food sensitivities cause inflammation, which can contribute to a whole host of issues including gut dysbiosis (or imbalance in the gut bacteria), inflammation in the brain (partially due to the inflammation and imbalance in the gut), constipation, stimming, diarrhea, eczema or other skin problems. The list goes on. Not only that, but they may be getting obviously bloated or have other digestive system complaints when they eat foods to which they are sensitive.
It is often worthwhile to do a trial elimination diet and see if you (or they) notice any changes. Typically, I have my patients do a trial of at least 6 weeks of very strict avoidance of gluten and dairy at the very least. And if the parent and I agree that it’s feasible to also eliminate corn and soy, we’ll do that as well. It’s important to be strict and it’s important to do the full 6 weeks, or you risk not accurately determining if there is a sensitivity and what that sensitivity is.
It’s important to prepare before starting an elimination diet. You as the parent need to get a handle on what foods are allowable and not. There will be things you need to think of substitutes for, sometimes favorite foods are not allowed anymore. Spend some time doing some thinking and planning around exactly how you will implement this elimination diet. Planning before getting started will surely make the transition and process much easier in the long run.
Supplements: A Simple and Effective Biomedical Treatment for Autism Symptoms
Depending on the child, there are a variety of supplements that can be very helpful in minimizing or eliminating some of the bothersome symptoms associated with ASD. Many times, I start with a well-balanced multivitamin, and include zinc, magnesium, and extra vitamin B12. Of course, we want to make sure that the child’s vitamin D level is optimized as well – that means around 60-80ng/mL. Most people are going to be below that number if they are not supplementing and live north of the northern 35th parallel (southern United States) or south of the southern 35th parallel.
Chiropractic Neurology: One of My Favorite Alternative Treatments for Autism Symptoms
Chiropractic Neurology, also known as Functional Neurology, helps to find and treat different dysfunctions in the nervous system with a variety of non-invasive tests and treatments. I had no idea what this was until a friend whose child is a little older and also has Autism, told me I needed to check it out. So I did! It was so fascinating to watch them evaluate and treat her, and uncover (and subsequently treat) so many underlying neurological weaknesses or blatant deficits that no other therapist or doctor had even noticed were there. The therapy gave us gains that we saw with nothing else, many of which have lasted beyond the duration of treatment.
A big part of what a Chiropractic Neurologist does for children with autism is uncover and treat retained primitive reflexes. When a child (or adult) has retained primitive reflexes, it acts as a roadblock developmentally, and there are certain skills and functions then, that are not allowed to develop on track. Resolving (or integrating) these primitive reflexes can allow other therapies to be more effective, which is one reason that I encourage people to look into them as one of the first treatments after diagnosis.
Can Neurofeedback Treat Autism?
While I never like to claim that anything can “treat” Autism, as in completely eliminating it from the person, I do know that treating the bothersome symptoms of Autism is a life-changer for both the child and the whole family. The emotional instability, insomnia, various behavioral challenges, and even seizures (to mention just a few) can be just a few things that can be lessened or eliminated with neurofeedback.
How Does Neurofeedback Work?
I’m glad you asked! What it will look like logistically for your child is something like this: they sit in a chair, watching a screen during their session. Electroencephalogram (EEG) leads are placed on their scalp (it’s like a little button with gel underneath to allow conduction) during the treatment. Don’t worry – the wires aren’t putting anything into your child’s brain – they are only receptive: meaning that they only receive information from the brain about what is going on inside the brain. They do not provide any kind of treatment on their own. Based on the child’s pattern of brain waves, the picture on the screen gets bigger or smaller as a sort of consequence of what their brain waves are doing. Pretty soon, the brain learns (subconsciously, meaning the child isn’t necessarily doing anything intentionally, or having to “think” a different way to effect change) the brain learns what it needs to do in order to get the picture bigger (reward). This trains the train to be in that “better” wave pattern more of the time, rather than the unhelpful brain wave patterns (which lead to the consequence of the picture becoming smaller).
You want to make sure that you pick an experienced provider, one who has worked with children with autism and is capable of managing all the behaviors and other challenges that so often come with our kids.
Are Medications the Best Treatment for Autism?
While there is no treatment for Autism that cures Autism, again the goal with medication is to decrease the bothersome symptoms. Depending on the child and what their symptoms are, a different medication is going to be used. It’s important to remember that a lot of this is trial and error (or “an art” if you will), and that the first medication your child tries may not be the right fit. It can take months of adjustments to figure out the right medication or combination of medications to optimally help your child while minimizing undesired effects.
Medications like Zoloft and Paxil, which are in the antidepressant family, are often used with children with ASD because of their ability to treat anxiety and depression. Many times, our children struggle with these issues, and getting those under control makes other things, like sleep or concentration or behavior, improve.
Then there are medications for attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a common co-diagnosis with Autism. These include both stimulant medications like methylphenidate, dexmethylphenidate, and dextroamphetamine, and amphetamine (brand names include Addreall, Vyvanse, Focalin, Ritalin, and Concerta). These can help those with ADHD focus their brains and function better in their daily lives. There are also side effects though: mainly decreased appetite (leading to concerning weight loss in some), and insomnia. This is where the trial and error can come in – finding out which medications react best with your child’s body. Then there are the non-stimulant medications for ADHD, which include clonidine, guanfacine, and atomoxetine (brand names are Catapres, Intuniv, and Strattera). These work a little differently, and depending on your prescriber, may be preferred over stimulants as a first line of medication trials.
Sometimes it’s necessary to try a medication such as Risperdal (risperidone), which can be used to treat things like aggression, deliberate self-injury, meltdowns, and quickly changing moods, which can be common in children with Autism. As with any medication, it’s important to understand the medication’s benefits as well as it’s potential risks, and weigh that against the risks of a child’s current situation including behavior. It’s also important to reevaluate the need for any medication from time to time.
When it is appropriate to try a medication, it’s important to track the child’s symptoms and behavior carefully so that you know if the medication is helping or not, and if there are any side effects. Be sure to communicate this to the prescriber so that any adjustments or changes can be made to individualize your child’s treatment.
Chelation: An ASD Treatment for Toxic Metals
Chelation is the process of getting toxic metals out of the body. Many times, the metals (like lead, mercury, and aluminum) deposit in the brain and cause our kids problems including behavior issues. One problem is that some of the symptoms of heavy metal toxicity overlap closely with some symptoms of autism.
Chelation is something that you definitely want to do with the help of an experienced medical provider. There are risks when chelating, and working with someone who knows how to use chelation therapy is the best way to avoid issues.
Will chelation cure autism? No. If your child truly has Autism, chelating heavy metals out of the child’s body may have benefits in terms of symptoms of autism. However, as I mentioned, there is overlap between symptoms of Autism and symptoms of various metal toxicity. If your child has symptoms of metal toxicity that have been mislabeled as Autism, then chelation therapy may absolutely be the “cure.”
Primitive Reflex Integration: Another of My Favorite Autism Intervention Services
Normally we are all born with primitive reflexes. They integrate (become extinct) at certain ages or developmental milestones. However, in our children with Autism, at least some of these reflexes can be retained (or unintegrated). The good news is that there are exercises the child can do (you’ll help them of course) to help integrate reflexes from infancy that would have disappeared earlier in typical development. This can pave the way in the brain for further progress that would have been impossible or near impossible while those reflexes were still intact. After reflexes are integrated, children often benefit in more noticeable ways from traditional therapies like occupational and speech therapies.