Treating Autism Naturally
Plus Strategies for Prevention
by Meredith MontgomeryIn The Autism Revolution, Pediatric Neurologist and Neuroscientist Martha Herbert approaches autism as a whole-body condition that can improve, rather than a static, lifelong genetic brain disorder.
“It’s the way the brain is shifted into acting when faced with a combination of stressors—some, but not all of which are genetic—at a vulnerable point in development,” says Herbert. Non-genetic challenges can come from the immune system, nutrition, the environment and stress. “Addressing them can make a profound difference in the condition; maybe even turning it around.”
Herbert directs the Treatment Research and Neuroscience Evaluation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders (TRANSCEND) program at a joint Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Massachusetts General Hospital Medical Imaging facility.
“While autism is often thought of as a genetic disorder, it’s the result of a gene-environment interaction where genes are corrupted,” explains Psychiatrist Robert Hendren, who is currently partnering in developing the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorder and Neurodevelopmental Disorders at the University of California, San Francisco.
According to the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability, now affecting one in 68 children and one in 42 boys. Autism Speaks (AutismSpeaks.org) defines autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as a group of complex brain development disorders characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.
PreventionMany experts agree that in some cases, autism can be prevented. “Prevention needs to start early—preconception is ideal,” says Dr. Kenneth A. Bock, of Bock Integrative Medicine, in New York, and author of Healing the New Childhood Epidemics: Autism, ADHD, Asthma and Allergies.
Emphasizing omega-3 essential fatty acids, folic acid and probiotics during pregnancy can be beneficial, and it’s important to avoid iron deficiency, which has been tied to higher rates of autism, Hendren counsels.
Results from a recent University of California, Davis study published in Environmental Health Perspectives reveals increased rates of autism among children of women that live close to pesticide-treated fields during pregnancy, particularly during the second and third trimesters. Hendren says, “Living near heavily sprayed fields can be very detrimental. Living close to freeways or downwind of coal-fired power plants is also associated with autism.”
If heavy metal toxicity in blood is confirmed, chelation therapy is often used to remove metals, although Hendren advises against using it for the general treatment of ASD. “Chelators pull out mercury, along with other metals, a process that can be harmful. Instead, think about diet and nutritional supplements that can help detoxify the body more safely,” he explains.
Bock says, “It’s not enough to detoxify, we have to remove and prevent exposure to neurodevelopmental toxins.”
Herbert suggests avoiding toxic household products, electromagnetic exposure from devices such as cell phones and baby monitors, which can lead to stress, sleep disruption and cell health problems, as well as and antibiotic overuse, which can disrupt the gut microbiome, increasing vulnerability to exposure to other harmful chemicals.
Herbert notes some parents observe that their child became autistic after a vaccination but there are also autistic children that are vaccine-free; still others become so after facing other stresses such as illness or trauma. “We need to focus on the underlying vulnerabilities and keep children strong and resilient so they can handle life’s challenges to their health and immune systems,” she says.
Safeguard ResilienceCurrently, the only treatment that has been proven to consistently improve the core symptoms of ASD is behavioral therapy designed to foster language, socialization and academic skills. While effective, this approach is time- and staff-intensive.
With the rise and prevalence of autism in the past decade, more parents are turning to complementary and alternative treatments (CAM). Hendren reports that the best researched and safest CAM therapies for treating autism include melatonin to improve sleep, omega-3 fatty acids to ease hyperactivity and possibly improve socialization, multivitamins to supplement a limited diet or poor appetite and methyl B12 injections to protect against oxidative stress. Massage therapy has also proven effective in increasing connectivity with others and reducing over-arousal, while reducing ASD symptoms.
Research remains in its infancy, but other CAMs deemed acceptable for a professionally monitored trial include B6 and magnesium supplements to correct metabolic aberration, folic acid for improvements in core symptoms, probiotics to ease gastrointestinal distress and iron supplementation for deficiencies.
Although clear benefits have yet to be backed by scientific evidence, many parents of children with ASD report that behavior improves with a diet free of the proteins gluten (found in wheat, barley and rye) and casein (found in dairy). Other parent-endorsed diets include anti-yeast, anti-hyperglycemia, specific carbohydrate, low-oxalate and specific food reaction regimens.
A review article in the journal Autism Research and Treatment notes that acupuncture, exercise, and music- and animal-assisted therapy have all been reported as helping to reduce a variety of ASD functional and behavioral symptoms.
From sound-dampening headphones that offset loud noises to structuring the environment to anticipate transitions, removing stressors can help reduce the debilitating characteristics of ASD. “This improves abilities to learn and interact with others, but we also don’t want to shelter them from having a chance to learn the rules of social interaction in real-world situations,” advises Hendren.
Because autism is a heterogeneous disorder with numerous subtypes, the best individualized combination of treatments can be challenging to identify and can often change throughout one’s life. Bock reminds families that even with a successful treatment plan, “A parent’s love is the final element that brings these recovering children out of darkness into light.”
Meredith Montgomery publishes Natural Awakenings of Gulf Coast Alabama/Mississippi (HealthyLivingHealthyPlanet.com).