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Autism Spectrum Disorders: Complementary/Alternative Treatments

A variety of non-medical treatments for autism have cropped up in recent years, and while scientific evidence doesn’t support their use, anecdotal reports abound in some cases. But some alternative therapies may present new health risks so it’s important to consider these carefully with your pediatrician.

Wheat- and Dairy-free Diets

One popular alternative treatment for ASDs centers on following a gluten-free, casein-free diet. The theory is that children with autism spectrum disorders may absorb the proteins in gluten (found in wheat, barley, and rye) and casein (found in milk products) differently than other children do -- and this has an adverse effect on their brain function. “There’s no scientific evidence that these diets help but some parents swear by them,” Dr. Rowe says. On the dietary front, some parents also opt for giving their children fish oil supplements (which are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties). “There’s some data to suggest the use of omega-3 fatty acids has neuroprotective effects and the risks are minimal,” Dr. Coplan says. “But the optimal dose for children with autism spectrum disorders is not known.”

Chelation Therapy

A buzzword among families dealing with ASDs, this treatment uses chemicals to remove heavy metals like lead and mercury from the body, which proponents believe can cause autism. There's no solid evidence to back it, though. “The benefits of getting metals out of the body are unproven,” Dr. Coplan says, “and chelation can be risky because research has shown that the most popular oral chelating agent causes brain damage.”

Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatments

These treatments -- in which a patient breathes in extra oxygen while inside a special, pressurized chamber -- have been touted as a remedy for autism. Advocates theorize that the treatment can improve symptoms in autistic patients by reducing brain inflammation.  Subjecting children with ASDs to excess oxygen may do more harm than good, Dr. Coplan says. Research, according to Coplan, has shown that excess oxygen causes brain damage.