Treating Autism Symptoms with Complementary and Alternative Medicine Has Pros And Cons

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A four-year-old boy on the spectrum was rushed into the hospital with symptoms including vomiting, weight loss, and constipation. Doctors determined he had hypercalcaelmia—too much calcium in the blood—and too much vitamin D. It turned out the child, at the advice of a naturopath, had been on 12 different holistic supplements, from camel’s milk to vitamin D to silver.

The practice of using Complementary and Alternative Medicine/Complementary and Alternative Treatments (CAM/CAT) is far from uncommon. A study found that almost 40 percent of preschoolers on the spectrum were taking CAM to mitigate symptoms—and again, that was just preschoolers. With numbers like that, it’s important that we talk about it—the good, the bad, and the dangerous.

(Note: The Autism Site is not a substitute for medical advice. Please talk to your child’s doctor before trying any treatments.)

Herbal essence. Alternative healthy medicine. Skin care. Essential oil or water dropping from fresh leaf to the bottle.

What Is CAM/CAT?

CAM/CAT is any kind of medicine or treatment that is not typically utilized in conventional, Western medicine. As the name suggests, it is meant to complement more mainstream treatments (i.e. therapies or pharmaceutical medications approved for treating autism). So for example, a child who is in ABA therapy and is also on a gluten-free, casein-free diet would be utilizing CAM/CAT. If conventional treatment isn’t being used at all, it’s considered Alternative Medicine/Alternative Treatment.

It’s not just about diet and medicine, either. There are five different categories in particular: Mind/Body (e.g. yoga, meditation, and music therapy), Manipulative and Body-Based (e.g. acupuncture and chiropractic therapy), Biologically-Based (that’s the medicines and diets), Energy Medicine (such as qigong), and Whole Medical Systems (all of the above).

Does CAM/CAT Really Work?

That depends on who you ask! There are a number of parents who swear by the effectiveness of alternative treatments, noting that their child has significantly improved since its implementation. We should not necessarily blow off or discredit these experiences, as it is possible that it did, in fact, work wonders for their child.

However, medical professionals do have some warnings about CAM/CAT—not necessarily because they think Western medicine is “better,” but because conventional medicine is evidence-based and has gone through rigorous testing, whereas alternative treatments have not. So while some alternative treatments may work for some, they may not work for all, or even most individuals. There’s a lot of uncertainty to it, so trying it may result in lost time and money.

Additionally, like anything else in life—including conventional medicine—alternative medicine can be potentially dangerous, especially if used improperly. Many believe that CAM/CAT is safe because it tends to be more “natural,” but “natural” does not necessarily mean “safe,” in the same way “manufactured” does not necessarily mean “dangerous.” Case in point: poison ivy is natural, and many types of textiles used for clothing are manufactured.

So the conclusion? If you think a CAM/CAT might work, it might be worth exploring if it is not dangerous or too time/money-consuming. Just make sure to approach it with a healthy degree of skepticism, as the mind can play tricks on you, like the placebo effect. And always get the doctor’s OK before trying something new, and even then be sure to approach the treatment with a generous amount of research and caution to ensure you are using it safely.

What Are Some Examples of Dangerous CAM/CAT?

Though there are safe forms of CAM/CAT for autism, there are some that should not be used to treat autism’s symptoms, as they may not be safe. Take caution, as this is not an exhaustive list!

  • Chelation Therapy: a person undergoing this type of treatment takes either DMSA or DMPS, which is meant to strip heavy metals out of the body (based on the unproven notion that autism is caused by heavy metals in the body). This is appropriate and approved for those who have been poisoned by heavy metals like mercury, but not for autism. Most importantly, it has resulted in death for some children.
  • Anti-Fungal Medications: Due to the belief that autism is caused by gut bacteria, some use anti-fungal medications in hopes of clearing it out. There’s no evidence that this actually works, and the side effects can be ugly. A few anti-fungals like Lamisil, for example, can harm the liver.
  • Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS): When used as directed, the toxic chemicals of this substance combine to form chlorine dioxide. That is an industrial-grade bleach! It is administered orally or via enema—either way you look at it, it’s simply terrifying. For more info, check out the article I wrote about it.
  • Lupron Therapy: Based on a theory that testosterone makes mercury poisoning worse (again, tapping into the false notion of heavy metals causing autism), Lupron—typically used for treating prostate cancer in adult men and precocious puberty in children—inhibits testosterone to the point of chemical castration. Enough said.

skull made of pills

What Are Some Examples of CAM/CAT That Are Likely Safe When Used Correctly?

The key words here are when used correctly. This, too, is not an exhaustive list!

  • Essential Oils: Essential oils basically make use of aromatherapy. As long as it is diluted before put in contact with skin and not ingested, this is pretty safe. And it smells nice! Learn more about the pros and cons of essential oils here.
  • Gluten-Free, Casein-Free Diet: Some studies have investigated whether or not going GF/CF can help with autism symptoms. Some say yes, some say no, so the results are kind of inconclusive. But as long as your child is getting adequate nutrition otherwise, ridding their diet of gluten and casein probably won’t do any harm. Just be sure they get plenty of calcium and vitamin D, as this kind of diet could result in lower bone density. We recommend you talk to a dietician before giving this one a shot, and that you keep your child under a doctor’s supervision while testing it out.
  • Vitamin Supplements: Whether your child takes melatonin in the evening or a Vitamin C pill in the morning, supplements are relatively safe. Just be sure your child gets the correct dosages, as too much of any kind of vitamin (yes, including water soluble ones like Vitamin C) could pose health risks.

What Should I Watch Out for When Choosing a CAM/CAT?

Again, the harmful CAM/CAT treatments I mentioned earlier is not an exhaustive list. There has been and will continue to be charlatans out there who take advantage of autism parents’ desperation in order to make a profit. It is positively disgusting.

skeptical interviewer looking at interviewee

Want to avoid being duped by those greedy individuals? Here are a few universal red flags you should watch out for when considering a new CAM/CAT:

  • It claims to be a “cure-all,” or at least a cure/treatment for multiple different conditions, disorders, and illnesses…particularly when they aren’t interconnected (e.g. a treatment claiming to cure allergies, autism, cancer, and Alzheimer’s are extremely dubious).
  • There are no scientific studies to support the treatment; evidence of efficacy comes solely from individual testimonies. As Forbes points out, anyone can write a testimonial—including the people trying to sell the treatment or medicine.
  • It claims to be a cure for autism. There is no cure for autism.
  • It promises a quick-fix.
  • It claims there’s a conspiracy of some sort, that doctors and the government itself are trying to “hide” this treatment from the public. (You know those silly click-bait ads you see that say something along the lines of “Doctors hate her [for coming up with a miracle solution to a condition]!”? Yeah, that’s exactly what we’re talking about here.)
  • The tone behind the marketing is extremely manipulative: for example, implicitly or explicitly stating, “If you really love your child, you’ll try this.”
  • It sounds too good to be true. If that’s the case, it usually is.

What has been your experience with CAM/CAT? Let us know in the comments!

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A. Stout received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing through Grand Valley State University, graduating Magna Cum Laude in 2015. In addition to being a passionate autism advocate, she is a member of various fandoms, a study abroad alumna, and an animal lover. She dreams of publishing novels and traveling all over the world someday.
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