CAM Therapies for Autism: A Comprehensive Guide

Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental condition that impacts how people communicate, interact, and behave. While being autistic is not an illness or disease, it does present challenges that can benefit from therapeutic support. In recent years, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies have emerged as popular options alongside or in place of standard treatments like ABA therapy. This comprehensive guide will explore the full range of CAM therapies available for autism, including their pros, cons, risks, and efficacy.

CAM Therapies for Autism A Comprehensive Guide
CAM Therapies for Autism A Comprehensive Guide

What is Autism?

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, speech and nonverbal communication, repetitive behaviors, and restricted interests. Autism exists on a spectrum, meaning it impacts each individual differently. Some autistic people may be nonverbal while others have advanced language skills. Many autistic people also have sensory sensitivities, gastrointestinal issues, anxiety, and other co-occurring conditions.

While the causes of autism are still not fully understood, research suggests there are genetic and environmental factors at play. Autism is not caused by parenting or vaccines. In fact, the vaccine-autism link has been conclusively disproven. Autism is also not something that needs to or can be cured – it is a natural variation in human neurodiversity. However, supportive therapies and accommodations can help autistic people thrive and reach their full potential.

Standard Therapies for Autism

When an individual is diagnosed with autism, doctors often recommend standard treatment options like:

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy

ABA therapy aims to reinforce positive behaviors and discourage negative behaviors. Techniques include breaking down skills into small teachable steps and providing positive reinforcement through praise or rewards. ABA is considered the gold standard treatment by the medical community, but it is controversial among some autistic adults who view its methods as abusive.

Speech, Occupational, and Physical Therapy

These therapies help autistic children and adults improve communication, motor, and adaptive living skills through exercises and activities. They take place one-on-one or in small groups.

Medications

Medications like risperidone, aripiprazole, and anti-anxiety drugs may be prescribed to help manage challenging behaviors, repetitive habits, or co-occurring mental health issues like anxiety or depression. However, these drugs often come with side effects.

An Introduction to CAM Therapies

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) refers to treatments that fall outside conventional Western medicine. CAM therapies are used either alongside (complementary) or in place of (alternative) standard treatments. When it comes to autism, CAM therapies aim to alleviate symptoms and improve quality of life.

According to a survey by the Interactive Autism Network (IAN), nearly 40% of children with ASD use CAM therapies. The most popular options include vitamin supplements, special diets, chiropractic care, and sensory integration therapy. Let’s explore some of the CAM therapies commonly used for autism:

Dietary Approaches

  • Gluten-free, casein-free diets: These eliminate gluten and casein, proteins found in grains and dairy, due to theories they worsen autism symptoms.
  • Anti-yeast diets: These restrict sugar and yeast under the belief yeast overgrowth contributes to autism.
  • Feingold diet: This eliminates artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives thought to negatively impact behavior.
  • Specific carbohydrate diet (SCD): The SCD removes complex carbs like grains, lactose, and sucrose.

Supplements

Supplements commonly used for autism include:

  • Omega-3s: Fish oil supplements may reduce hyperactivity.
  • Probiotics: These aim to improve gut health and issues like constipation.
  • Vitamin B12: B12 may help with sleep, focus, and behavior.
  • Melatonin: This natural sleep hormone often treats insomnia.
  • Multivitamin: A daily multivitamin can fill nutrition gaps in picky eaters.

Mind-Body Therapies

Mind-body techniques that may help with anxiety, sensory issues, and self-regulation include:

  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Deep breathing
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Biofeedback
  • Sensory integration therapy

Body-Based Therapies

Hands-on therapies that may reduce pain, improve posture, and increase relaxation:

  • Massage therapy
  • Craniosacral therapy
  • Chiropractic care
  • Acupuncture

Developmental Therapies

Developmental approaches aim to improve social, communication, and life skills through engagement in fun activities:

  • Art therapy
  • Music therapy
  • Animal therapy
  • Play therapy
  • Drama therapy

Evaluating CAM Therapies for Your Child

While CAM therapies are popular, it’s important to consult your doctor first and evaluate each option carefully. Here are some key questions to ask:

  • What are the potential benefits of this therapy? How does it work?
  • Are there any risks or side effects associated with this treatment?
  • Is there solid scientific evidence that this therapy is effective and safe? What do studies show?
  • Will this therapy interfere with any of my child’s current treatments?
  • Is this therapist properly licensed and credentialed? Do they specialize in autism?
  • How much does this therapy cost? Will my insurance cover it?
  • What are alternatives I could consider instead?

Documenting your child’s progress is also crucial. Take objective baseline measurements before starting therapies, then track any improvements over a set period of time. This will help you determine if therapies are truly making a positive difference.

Top 5 Most Beneficial CAM Therapies for Autism

While no CAM therapy has been scientifically proven to cure autism, certain options show promise in improving symptoms:

1. Melatonin

Multiple studies indicate melatonin is safe and effective for treating insomnia in ASD. It helps reset the biological clock and promote restful sleep. Dose and timing are important, so consult your doctor.

2. Probiotics

Probiotics may alleviate constipation and gut issues common in autism by improving gut microbiome balance. They also have few risks. However, more research is still needed.

3. Massage Therapy

Massage therapy performed by a trained professional can safely reduce anxiety, improve sleep, and teach self-calming strategies.

4. Music Therapy

Music therapy that involves singing, listening, and moving to music boosts communication, social skills, and quality of life according to several studies.

5. ABA Therapy

Despite controversy around some techniques, multiple studies demonstrate ABA can improve language, social, and adaptive skills through reinforcement-based teaching.

5 CAM Therapies to Avoid

Some CAM therapies for autism are very risky or disproven. Options to avoid include:

  • Chelation therapy: Removing heavy metals to treat “vaccine injury” can be toxic.
  • Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS): This bleach solution is extremely dangerous though touted as a “cure”.
  • Hyperbaric oxygen therapy: No evidence it helps autism and poses risks like ruptured eardrums.
  • IVIG therapy: IV immunoglobulin to “modulate immunity” has serious side effects.
  • Packing therapy: Wrapping in cold, wet sheets to “recalibrate nerves” has caused deaths.

Talk to your doctor before ceasing any therapies, even if concerned about safety. Abruptly stopping some treatments can cause setbacks.

Integrating CAM with ABA Therapy and Other Treatments

CAM therapies should always complement, not replace, proven treatments like ABA therapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy. Work closely with your child’s care team to determine which CAM options are safe and worthwhile.

Track progress diligently, and be willing to tweak your child’s regimen. What works well today may need to be adjusted as your child’s needs evolve. Stay vigilant about new research on therapies too.

With careful evaluation, CAM can be a beneficial addition to a comprehensive treatment approach. But remember, autism is not a disease to be cured. The goal should be supporting your child’s unique needs to help them thrive.

Finding the Right CAM Therapies for Your Child

If considering CAM for your child, here are some helpful steps:

  • Discuss CAM options with your child’s doctor and care team
  • Research therapies of interest thoroughly
  • Consult autistic adults for perspectives on treatments
  • Start with low-risk, evidence-based options
  • Set goals and meticulously track progress
  • Adjust approaches as needed to benefit your child
  • Discontinue any therapy that feels unsafe or ineffective

Working collaboratively with providers and trusting your instincts as a parent are key to determining which CAM therapies (if any) are right for your family. Don’t be afraid to advocate on your child’s behalf.

Accessing CAM Therapy Services

CAM therapies are available from:

  • Holistic health centers
  • Physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy clinics
  • Mental health counselors, psychologists
  • Dietitians and nutritionists
  • Yoga studios, acupuncture clinics, massage studios
  • Specialty centers focused on autism treatment

Contact your insurance provider to learn if any CAM options are covered. State Medicaid plans and private insurers sometimes cover therapies like music therapy, massage, or dietary counseling. Many CAM treatments are paid out-of-pocket, but costs vary widely.

Scholarships and financial assistance may be available through local autism organizations and nonprofits. Reach out to autism advocacy groups to inquire about grant opportunities that can offset therapy expenses.

The Takeaway

For children and adults with autism, complementary and alternative medicine can potentially help manage symptoms and improve quality of life. However, CAM should complement, not replace, proven treatments like ABA therapy. Work closely with healthcare providers to determine which options are worthwhile based on your child’s needs and challenges. Track progress carefully over time to see if therapies are truly effective. While no CAM treatment is a magic cure, thoughtful integration of select CAM therapies into an autism treatment plan may have significant benefits.

Partnering with Jade ABA Therapy in Maryland

Jade ABA Therapy provides premier in-home ABA services throughout Maryland. Our passionate team has decades of experience helping autistic boys reach their potential.

We use the principles of ABA to build communication, social, academic, adaptive, and behavioral skills based on each child’s strengths and challenges. Our data-driven approach tracks progress daily so we can celebrate achievements and modify plans as needed.

Our therapists establish close partnerships with families. We provide consistent communication and training so you can support your son’s growth.

To learn more about our ABA services for autistic boys, call us today at (410) 616-0901 or email info@jadeaba.org. We offer a free consultation to discuss your child’s needs and goals.

We look forward to helping your son gain confidence and thrive through the power of ABA therapy.

References

[1] Interactive Autism Network. Complementary and Alternative Medicine Treatments Used by Caregivers of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. https://iancommunity.org/cs/cam_treatment

[2] Lofthouse et al. A Review of Complementary and Alternative Treatments for Autism Spectrum Disorders. Autism Research and Treatment. https://www.hindawi.com/journals/aurt/2012/870391/

[3] Autistic Self Advocacy Network. Treatments and Cures. https://autisticadvocacy.org/about-asan/position-statements/treatments-and-cures/

[4] Weitlauf et al. Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Systematic Review. Pediatrics. 2020. https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article/146/6/e20201682/37381/Complementary-and-Alternative-Therapies-for-Autism

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