The dramatic rise in autism rates has continued through the past 20 years, with a staggering one in 88 children now affected by the disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of this number, one in 54 boys is now diagnosed with autism— a sobering statistic further highlighting the urgent need for treatment-directed research and effective interventions.

When it comes to causation and treatment, autism has become a hotbed of controversy. While some parents and caregivers adhere to traditional therapies, such as behavioral and speech interventions, a growing number are turning to methodologies not yet given the official seal of approval from mainstream medicine. Many parents continue to express frustration with what they perceive as an inadequate response to the autism epidemic from government health agencies and the medical establishment in terms of available treatment options.

Underlying Needs

Individuals with autism suffer from underlying pathologies that often go undiagnosed or ignored and left untreated. These medical conditions include gastrointestinal (GI) disturbances, immune system dysregulation, mitochondrial dysfunction and oxidative stress.

“Unfortunately, the vast majority of money is going to genetic research which has not resulted in a single effective treatment,” says parent and autism advocate Leslie Phillips of Katy, Texas. “The only FDA-approved treatment for autism is the psychiatric drug Risperdal.” Johnson & Johnson, Risperdal manufacturer, was just ordered to pay $1.2 billion for minimizing and concealing dangers associated with the antipsychotic. “It’s no wonder parents are looking beyond what mainstream medicine tells us is acceptable for our children,” Phillips adds.

Dietary Considerations

Parents frequently turn to dietary interventions when initially investigating alternative options for kids with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Several special nutrition plans— most notably the Gluten-Free/Casein-Free (GF/CF) diet— have grown in popularity. Many families report dramatic improvement in behaviors typically associated with autism after employing the diet. The GF/CF lifestyle removes foods that contain wheat and dairy because incomplete digestion of proteins found in gluten and casein in such foods may produce or magnify ASD symptoms.

Other special diets include the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, which eliminates hard-to-digest complex carbohydrates that feed harmful bacteria in the digestive system, and the Feingold diet, which removes artificial colors, flavors and other additives. Given that gastrointestinal disturbances often affect those with autism, addressing GI distress through diet is a logical avenue to explore.

Promising Options

In addition to dietary interventions, several alternative treatments are showing promise for people on the spectrum. Below are just a few of the emerging protocols being implemented for individuals with autism.

  • N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC) Supplementation: A precursor to glutathione, NAC has been shown to be deficient in many children with autism. Addressing oxidative stress with NAC and other antioxidants may result in physical and behavioral improvements.
  • Incorporating Essential Fatty Acids (EFA): EFAs may be effective in addressing inflammation, often a factor for people with autism. Omega-3s in particular are known to have anti-inflammatory properties crucial for brain health.
  • Detoxification of Heavy Metals: People with autism may not be able to effectively eliminate toxins, such as lead and mercury. This explains the recent focus on detoxification protocols, including chelation therapy.
  • Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy: This treatment involves increasing the oxygen content of the body. Some parents of ASD children are reporting improvement in symptoms following treatment in hyperbaric oxygen chambers.
  • Introducing Digestive Enzymes: Adding certain enzymes to a diet may reduce issues associated with mal-digestion, including bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation and food intolerances.
  • Vitamin B12 Supplementation: Some people with autism may be deficient in vitamin B12, which is critical for proper brain function, the metabolism of fats and carbohydrates, as well as the synthesis of proteins.
  • Taking Probiotics: Science backs parental claims that re-establishing and maintaining “friendly” gut bacteria improves health, mood and behavior in children with autism.

Before treating children in any way for autism, parents need to carefully research the many options available and consult with their child’s healthcare provider. “Families working with practitioners unwilling to investigate alternative approaches need to consider finding more open-minded healthcare providers,” Phillips suggests. “The benefits for our kids from these emerging protocols can be huge.”

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