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Use of complementary and alternative medicine prevalent in children with autism

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A study published today in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics indicates that the use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is common in children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

CAM treatments include, but aren't limited to, dietary supplements, gluten and casein-free diets, acupuncture, probiotics and chelation therapy. The treatments were in addition to evidence-based treatments, such as behavioral therapies.

The researchers looked at 453 children diagnosed with ASD, as well as 125 developmentally delayed children, between the ages of two and five in California. Upon interviewing the families of the participants, they found that 40 percent of the children with ASD and 30 percent of the developmentally delayed children had received some form of CAM treatment.

The use of psychotropic drugs was low across the participants and a higher level of parent education was associated with increased CAM use.

An alarming result of this study was that 9 percent had been treated with a harmful form of CAM, such as chelation therapy, which is the process of using chemicals to remove heavy metals from the body. This type of treatment has been shown to be an ineffective and unsafe form of treatment for ASD. Its use stems from the disproved association of mercury poisoning, vaccines and autism. One of the many dangers of chelation therapy is that it may also eliminate other vital metals from the body, including calcium, which may lead to death.

Other invasive treatments used among those 9 percent include vitamin B12 injections and the use of the drug secretin.

Surprisingly, parents who refused to vaccinate their children were no more or less likely to pursue CAM treatments, since the assumption is that parents who do not vaccinate were more likely to seek out unorthodox treatments, although under-immunized children were marginally more likely to have utilized a CAM treatment.

The inherent paradox of using fringe approaches simultaneously with evidence-based approaches is that if a child's symptoms were to abate while in treatment, it would be very difficult to attribute their progress to either treatment since they were both being used at the same time. Nonetheless, from a parent's perspective, the instinct to use as many tools as possible to help treat their child is unassailable. Therefore, this study emphasizes the need for more research into the safety and effectiveness of CAM treatments.

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