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Unproven Treatments for Autism


Topic Overview

The safety and effectiveness of some therapies used to treat autism is not known. Many unproven treatments circulate through Web sites, word of mouth, or the media. Most have not been subjected to thorough, sound research and are considered nonstandard and controversial. Be especially cautious about a treatment if:

  • The treatment is based upon oversimplified scientific theories.
  • It benefits more than one condition.
  • It provides dramatic and "miraculous" results.
  • The only available evidence is based upon a few stories (anecdotal evidence), not scientific research.
  • Specific treatment goals or target behaviors are not identified.
  • Controlled, scientific research is said not to be needed because there are no risks or side effects.

Examples of current nonstandard, unproven therapies for autism that are receiving attention include:1

  • Nutritional supplements. Some studies have claimed that giving high doses of vitamin B6 and magnesium improves autistic behaviors. A review of these studies found they lacked controls and scientific design.2
  • Restrictive diets. Elimination of milk and gluten from a child's diet is based upon an idea that autism is triggered by digestive disorders. Parents of a child with autism who also has food allergies or intolerance may be more likely to attempt this type of diet. However, food sensitivities are not proven to be more common in children with autism than in normally developing children.
  • Immune globulin therapy. An intravenous (IV) injection of immune globulin is based on the assumption that autism is caused by an autoimmune abnormality.
  • Secretin. This treatment uses an IV injection of secretin (a hormone that stimulates the pancreas and liver) to manage autistic behavior. Studies show this treatment is not effective.3
  • Chelation therapy. Mercury exposure as a cause of autism is the basis for this therapy, which uses medications to help the body eliminate the toxins. Children with autism often have a craving for nonfood items (pica) or unusual diets that may result in mercury exposure; therefore, mercury exposure may be more an effect of autism than a cause.
  • Auditory integration training (AIT). Based upon a theory that autism is caused by hearing problems that result in distorted sounds or oversensitivity to noises, this treatment delivers music through special devices.
  • Facilitated communication. This method uses a keyboard to assist communication. It has not been found to be helpful and in some cases has been harmful.4

Clonidine (Catapres, Duraclon) and melatonin are medicines that are sometimes used to help manage overactive behavior and induce sleep in some people with autism. These medicines have not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to manage autism. Discuss the possible risks and benefits of clonidine and melatonin with your health professional before using them.

Always talk with a health professional before starting any little-known treatment for your child with autism. As is true for any treatment, be aware of the side effects and risks.

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