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Alternative medicine for autistic or intellectually disabled kids is widespread

Families often use complementary and alternative (CAM) medical treatments for young children with autism and other developmental delays, say researchers at the UC Davis MIND Institute. The study was published in the “Journal of Behavioral and Developmental Pediatrics” on Jan. 11, 2013.

Robin Hansen and children at the MIND Institute
UC Regents, UC Davis Mind Institute

These alternate approaches are more common among people who had higher levels of parental education and income.

There is currently no medical treatment that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for autism or developmental delays.

“In our Northern California study population, it does not appear that families use complementary and alternative treatments due to the lack of availability of conventional services, as has been suggested by other research,” said Robin Hansen, the director of the Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities at the MIND Institute and chief of the Division of Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics in the UC Davis School of Medicine. “Rather, they use the treatments in addition to conventional approaches.”

Some unconventional approaches families may try include:

  • mind-body medicine such as prayer or meditation
  • Probiotics
  • Homeopathic remedies
  • Special diets
  • antifungal medications

More invasive and risky therapies are:

  • B-12 injections
  • Intravenous immunoglobulin or chelation therapy

The study included data from the Childhood Autism Risk from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) study. The participants were nearly 500 children ages 2 to 5 years. In this group, 453 were diagnosed with autism and 125 were diagnosed with developmental delay.

Study findings

  • CAM use was more common for children with autism (40 percent) than other types of intellectual disabilities (30 percent)
  • 7 percent of children with autism were on a casein-free/gluten-free diet, especially children with gastrointestinal complaints
  • Most families were choosing low risk CAM therapies
  • 9 percent of the children were on alternate treatments that the study classified as potentially not safe, unproven or invasive such as chelation therapies, antifungal medications, and vitamin B-12 injections

“Our study suggests that pediatricians and other providers need to ask about CAM use in the context of providing care for children with autism and other developmental disorders, and take a more active role in helping families make decisions about treatment options based on available information related to potential benefits and risks,” said Roger Scott Akins, lead author and a former postdoctoral fellow at the MIND Institute, who now is chairman of the Division of Neurodevelopmental Pediatrics at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, Virginia.

"These findings emphasize the enormous and urgent need for effective treatments and for rigorous research that can identify them and verify their effectiveness and safety,” Irva Hertz-Picciotto, professor of public health sciences and principal investigator for the CHARGE study, said. “Of course it is reasonable for parents to keep searching for ways to help their children, when there are few effective treatments and none that can help every child."

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