Many parents of children who have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) choose to consider complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) to help treat overall health and potential behavioral problems. An estimated 30 to 95 percent of children with an ASD have been given some type of CAM support.
Not all CAM support have been fully researched. While many are safe and some may even be effective, take caution. Not every option will work for every person on the spectrum. What works for one person may not work for another. Talk to your doctor before changing your child’s support strategies, diet, or lifestyle.
Some doctors recommend an autism diet. This means reducing or eliminating gluten and casein from the diet. Gluten is a protein in the seeds of wheat and other grains, such as barley and rye. Gluten is in many food products and can cause digestive problems.
Casein is a protein in milk products, and it may be another common source of digestive issues. It’s thought that both gluten and casein can be inflammatory and that reducing them from the diet can help overall health and behavior in those who have autism.
According to the Autism Society, the average American diet includes more wheat and dairy products than is necessary. These proteins can also significantly affect behavior. According to the University of Florida Department of Pediatrics, this is because peptides in gluten and casein bind to opioid receptors in the brain. This can mimic the effects of illicit drugs, such as heroin or morphine, causing:
• inattentive behavior, or “zoning out”
• self-abusive behavior
The Autism Society recommends a trial gluten- and dairy-free diet. Improvements may be seen in as little as one to three months. If you want to try eliminating gluten and casein from your diet, you should only try to eliminate one at a time. See if removing just one makes an impact without eliminating both food items.
It’s important to make sure that your child is getting the nutrition they need, which can be more difficult when they’re on a specialized diet. Children on a dairy-free diet may need to take calcium supplements, or you may need to increase the amount of non-dairy, calcium-rich foods in their diet.
A recent study ran a double-blind trial challenge to evaluate whether the autism diet actually helped the behavior or bowel health of autistic children. This study didn’t find evidence that the autism diet made a substantial difference. The sample size for the trial was small, however, and the diet may still help others on the spectrum.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of good fat in fish oils and in supplement form. They help with brain development and function. According to the journal Biological Psychiatry, some small, early studies have shown that adding omega-3s to a child’s diet can improve hyperactive and repetitive behavior in those who have autism. Other studies published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology suggest that omega-3s could help improve social skills in children with an ASD.
Some studies support omega-3 fatty acids, and some studies argue against it. A recent study utilizing a placebo-controlled trial found that children with autism tolerated omega-3s well but the omega-3s didn’t help improve their behavioral problems. The study stated that the regular health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids still applied.
Talk with your doctor or a professional dietician to discuss the best way to add these healthy fats to your child’s diet.
Melatonin and sleep
Many children with autism experience persistent sleep problems, such as:
• having difficulty falling asleep
• waking up early
• having poor sleep quality
Sleeplessness can exacerbate many of the symptoms of autism, and you shouldn’t ignore it.
A recent pilot study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that the natural supplement melatonin helped children with an ASD sleep better and decreased symptoms during the day. The study notes, however, that melatonin should only be used if autism is the cause of the sleep problems. If something else is causing the issue, you should address the underlying problem.
Other solutions for sleep disorders
Anxiety or overwhelming stimuli can also cause children with autism to have difficulty sleeping.
Bright light therapy is a potential support strategy for children with autism who struggle to sleep at night. With this option, the child is exposed to periods of bright light in the morning, which may help the body’s natural release of melatonin.
Other remedies that can help your child sleep more include:
• avoiding stimulants, such as caffeine or sugar, before bed
• establishing a routine that you follow every night
• turning off TV or video games at least an hour before bedtime and relaxing the child by playing soft music or by reading a book
• adding light-blocking curtains to your child’s room to help prevent outside stimuli from disrupting them
Chelation therapy is designed to flush heavy metals from the body. It’s a support strategy for poisoning from heavy metals, such as lead or mercury. It’s not an approved support strategy for autism.
There is no evidence that metals cause autism or proof that this option works. It may even be dangerous to some people. These medications can potentially cause seizures, heart problems, and organ damage. While some people recommend this, the potential danger isn’t justified.
Behavior problems are a common issue in people with ASD. Calming techniques, such as deep pressure massage or wearing weighted clothing, may soothe agitation in people with ASD.
Expert June Groden recommends progressive relaxation techniques developed by Edmund Jacobson. This involves teaching people the difference between tense and relaxed muscles. People are then taught how to tighten and relax their muscles, including those in the hands, arms, and legs. This is done in combination with deep breathing and can help alleviate stress and agitation.
What is the outlook for people with autism?
None of these options can cure an ASD. They can only help limit symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that what works for one patient may not work for another. Your doctor should review any alternative method before it’s used as part of your child’s support program.