Traditional medicine generally relies upon the scientific study of a therapy or treatment, while alternative treatments may not have been studied with the same intensity and may not have government approval. When selecting a treatment that you are considering for your child, you should ask if it is safe, is there strong evidence it is effective, and is it worth the cost in both time and money? Some treatments do not have a high success rate. There are some red flags to watch for in choosing treatment, be cautious with those that claim they have quick results. Consider the objectivity of the funding source of the study, and be skeptical if testimonials are used instead of objective information. Partnering with your medical provider, mental health professional, and education team can help in making decisions about therapies by identifying research that has been done, potential harmful effects, and helping to monitor responses to treatments.
Since there currently is not a cure for autism, some find it beneficial to use a variety of methods to help the underlying symptoms. Some families have found that certain vitamins, minerals, and or diet changes have helped their child’s behavior or autism symptoms improve. Over the years there have been reports of specific vitamins helping behavior, such as B6 and magnesium, and the removal of gluten and casein in the diet to aid with digestion and overall gastrointestinal health. Not all researchers agree that these vitamins and/or dietary changes are really effective and/or necessary.
Over the past 10 years or more, claims have been made that vitamin and mineral supplements may improve the symptoms of autism, in a natural way. While not all researchers agree about whether these therapies are scientifically proven, many parent, and an increasing number of physicians, report improvement in people with autism when using individual or combined nutritional supplements.
Malabsorption problems and nutritional deficiencies have been addressed in several, as-of-yet, unreplicated studies. A few studies conducted in 2000 suggest that intestinal disorders and chronic gastrointestinal inflammation may reduce the absorption of essential nutrients and cause disruptions in immune and general metabolic functions that are dependent upon these essential vitamins. Other studies have shown that some children with autism may have low levels of vitamins A, B1, B3, B5, as well as biotin, selenium, zinc, and magnesium, while others may have an elevated serum copper to plasma zinc ratio, suggesting that people with autism should avoid copper and take extra zinc to boost their immune system. Other studies have indicated a need for more calcium.
Perhaps the most common vitamin supplement used in autism is vitamin B, which plays an important role in creating enzymes needed by the brain. In 18 studies on the use of vitamin B and magnesium (which is needed to make vitamin B effective), almost half of the individuals with autism showed improvement. The benefits include decreased behavioral problems, improved eye contact, better attention, and improvements in learning. Other research studies have shown that other supplements may help symptoms as well. Cod liver oil supplements (rich in vitamins A and D) have resulted in improved eye contact and behavior of children with autism. Vitamin C helps in brain function and deficiency symptoms like depression and confusion. Increasing vitamin C has been shown in a clinical trial to improve symptom severity in children with autism. And in a small pilot study in Arizona, using a multivitamin/mineral complex on 16 children with autism, improvements were observed in sleep, gastrointestinal problems, language, eye contact, and behavior.
USING VITAMINS AND MINERALS
If you are considering the addition of vitamins or minerals to your child’s diet, a laboratory and clinical assessment of nutritional status is highly recommended. The most accurate method for measuring vitamin and mineral levels is through a blood test. It is also important to work with someone knowledgeable in nutritional therapy. While large doses of some vitamins and minerals may not be harmful, others can be toxic. Once supplements are chosen, they should be phased in slowly (over several weeks) and then the effects should be observed for one to two months.
Individuals with autism may exhibit low tolerance or allergies to certain foods or chemicals. While not a specific cause of autism, these food intolerances or allergies may contribute to behavioral issues. Many parents and professionals have reported significant changes when specific substances are eliminated from the child’s diet.
Individuals with autism may have trouble digesting proteins such as gluten.
Research in the U.S. and England has found elevated levels of certain peptides in the urine of children with autism, suggesting the incomplete breakdown of peptides from foods that contain gluten and casein. Gluten is found in wheat, oats and rye, and casein in dairy products. The incomplete breakdown and the excessive absorption of peptides may cause disruption in biochemical and neuroregulatory processes in the brain, affecting brain functions. Until there is more information as to why these proteins are not broken down, the removal of the proteins from the diet is the only way to prevent further neurological and gastrointestinal damage.
It is important not to withdraw gluten/casein food products at once from a child’s diet, as there can be withdrawal symptoms. Parents wishing to pursue a gluten/casein free diet should consult a gastroenterologist or nutritionist, who can help ensure proper nutrition.
Some hypothesize that children with autism have what is referred to as a “leaky gut” — tiny holes in their intestinal tract that may be caused by an overgrowth of yeast. Some believe that this overgrowth may contribute to behavioral and medical problems in individuals with autism, such as confusion, hyperactivity, stomach problems, and fatigue. The use of nutritional supplements, anti-fungal drugs and/or a yeast-free diet may reduce the behavioral problems. However, caution should be paid to the fact that just as antibiotics can lead to bacterial resistance, antifungals can lead to fungal resistance.
Copyright 2007 Autism Society of America
Refer to our Treatment Evaluation Guidelines for ideas on what types of therapies might work for your child.