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
Not all CAM treatments have been fully researched. While many are safe and
some may even be effective, take caution. Not every treatment 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 treatment, diet, or
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 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
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
Talk with your doctor or a professional dietician to discuss the best way to
add these healthy fats to your child’s diet.
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
Bright light therapy is a potential treatment for children with autism who
struggle to sleep at night. With this treatment, 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
- establishing a routine that you follow every
- turning off TV or video games at least an hour
before bedtime and relaxing the child by playing soft music or by reading a
- 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
treatment for poisoning from heavy metals, such as lead or mercury. It’s not an
approved treatment for autism.
There is no evidence that metals cause autism or proof that this treatment
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.
is the outlook for people with autism?
None of these treatments can cure an ASD. They can only help limit symptoms.
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 treatment program.