TUESDAY, Jan. 14, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Nearly 40 percent of
preschoolers with autism are getting some kind of complementary or
alternative therapy for their condition, with nutritional
supplements and special diets being the most common things parents
try, a new study shows.
There are no medications currently approved specifically to
treat autism spectrum disorders and its core symptoms of social and
behavioral problems, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention. Autism symptoms also include stomach upset
and difficulty sleeping, among others.
So doctors and parents often rely on a variety of different, and
sometimes unproven and unconventional, treatments to try to manage
the wide variety of issues that can crop up.
Some experts had feared that parents might be turning to
complementary therapies because they couldn't access recommended
social or behavioral services or because they were trying to avoid
conventional medicines, like vaccines.
But the study, published in the January issue of
Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, found
that wasn't the case.
Children in the study were 2 to 5 years old. Nearly all of the
453 children who had autism and another 125 with developmental
disabilities were receiving the kinds of physical or behavioral
therapy and other kinds of social services that are typically
advised to help manage the condition. Many were also taking some
kind of conventional medication for symptoms like acid reflux,
constipation or mood disorders.
Yet, children getting more than 20 hours of traditional
behavioral and educational services a week were more likely than
others to also be receiving alternative treatments.
"So it wasn't because they couldn't get access to services. It
was just the opposite: The more services you got, the more likely
you were to be getting complementary medicine," said study author
Dr. Robin Hansen, chief of child development and behavioral
pediatrics at the University of California, Davis.
Hansen said the severity of the condition didn't appear to be a
factor in the decision to try an alternative treatment. And
children with autism were just as likely to be fully vaccinated as
their normally developing peers.
But education did seem to play a role. Children with at least
one parent who had finished college were about twice as likely to
be using a complementary therapy as kids with less-educated
The most common complementary treatments reported by parents
were considered to be relatively safe. Those included dietary
supplements and special diets. Nearly one in four parents reported
turning to specialized nutritional products (multivitamins and
gummies weren't counted). And almost one in five kids in the study
was on a gluten-free, casein-free diet, which cuts out the proteins
found in wheat and milk.
About 9 percent of children in the study were using therapies
that were unproven, invasive or potentially unsafe. Those included
the use of antifungal drugs to treat yeast infections, vitamin B-12
injections and chelation (a controversial treatment used to remove
metals from the body).
"These complementary and alternative treatments are occurring
much more commonly than traditional doctors often think," said Dr.
Eric Hollander, a psychiatrist at the Albert Einstein College of
Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center, in New York City.
Hollander said it was important for parents to let their doctors
know if they decide to try any kind of complementary treatment.
"I've had patients who've had benefits from various
complementary approaches, but I've had patients who've had side
effects as well," said Hollander, who treats children with
"As a clinician, I like to keep an open mind, and I'm interested
in what parents are reading or thinking about. And I want them to
be able to approach it in a systematic fashion, where they give it
a limited trial and see if there's any benefit," he said.
The problem many families face, he said, is that they try too
many things at the same time. Then it's hard to figure out what's
working and what isn't.
"The key is to have a good working relationship with your doctor
so you can sort out the benefits and risks," he said.
For more about complementary and alternative treatments for