Alternative Treatments for Autism

Updated: May 15, 2019
Many parents seek nondrug options for their child with autism. Biomedical intervention may be worth pursuing.
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What's wrong with conventional treatment?

Alternative Treatments for Autism

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 150 kids in the United States suffers from an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), making autism more common than childhood cancer, diabetes, and AIDS combined. The apparent explosion in autism numbers since the 1970s (when the incidence was two to three per 10,000) may be due to shifting definitions and increased awareness among parents, educators, and doctors. But the fact remains that far too many children are disabled by the disorder.

Conventional Treatment

Conventional medicine maintains that there is no known cure for autism, but recommends an early, intensive treatment program of psychosocial and behavioral interventions, including applied behavior analysis (ABA) and a wide range of drugs: antipsychotics, SSRIs, antidepressants, anticonvulsants, stimulants, and others. Increasingly, the parents of kids with ASDs are questioning the safety and efficacy of these drugs, and are seeking alternative treatments. The alternative approach has been championed by celebrity Jenny McCarthy, who believes that her son Evan recovered from autism through biomedical treatment.

The Argument for Alternative Treatments

ASDs are typically diagnosed by professionals with psychology and psychiatry backgrounds. Parents are often told that their child's autism is genetic and is psychological in nature. But many autistic children share similar physical complaints, including food allergies, eczema, general gastrointestinal distress, chronic constipation and/or diarrhea, yeast overgrowth, immune system problems, seizures, and sleep disturbances, according to the Autism Research Institute.

Proponents of alternative treatments believe that autism is primarily an environmental illness caused by a combination of heavy metals (mercury, lead, and aluminum), live viruses (particularly from vaccines), and bacteria. They theorize that dangerous levels of these toxins slow or shut down normal biochemical pathways in the body and lead to neurological disorders, manifested by both physical and mental symptoms. They address the physical symptoms by bringing down the toxin load, helping the gastrointestinal system heal, increasing/improving the nutrient intake, and removing heavy metals and other toxins. A number of parents have found that this treatment leads to the improvement of psychological symptoms.

According to the Autism Research Institute, the following are suspected environmental causes of ASDs:

  • Childhood vaccinations. The incidence of autism began rising significantly when the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine was introduced in the U.S. (1978) and in the U.K. (1988). Evidence of measles virus has been detected in the gut, spinal fluid, and blood of autistic children. The number of vaccines given to children has risen over the last two decades, and most of those vaccines contained the preservative thimerosal, which is 50 percent mercury. (Thimerosal has now been removed from all child vaccines.) The symptoms of mercury poisoning in children are very similar to the symptoms of autism.
  • Excessive use of oral antibiotics. Gastrointestinal problems, such as yeast/bacterial overgrowth, can be caused by overuse of antibiotics. Antibiotics also prevent mercury excretion.
  • Maternal exposure to mercury. The mother of an autistic child may have carried too much mercury in her system during pregnancy, due to consumption of seafood high in mercury, mercury in dental fillings, and thimerosal in RhoGam shots, for example. Fetuses who are exposed to high levels of mercury can suffer impaired brain growth, as well as permanent heart damage.
  • Lack of essential minerals. Deficiencies in zinc, magnesium, iodine, lithium, and potassium may be especially detrimental.
  • Pesticides and other environmental toxins.