Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Autism

Because there is no medical cure for autism, many parents turn to complementary and alternative (CAM) treatments. Most of these treatments are low risk and some have the potential to be helpful. Several CAM treatments promoted for autism, however, carry a level of risk or may be dangerous.

Before starting any alternative or complementary therapy, it's wise to consult a physician to be sure the therapy is safe and has the potential to be helpful. It's also very important to set goals and record outcomes to determine whether the therapy is helping

Boy playing with his therapist
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Standard Treatment for Autism

In general, CAM treatments are defined as being outside the standard or mainstream treatments. There are only a few established treatments available for autism.

Standard treatments for autism include:

While all of these treatments can be helpful, none can cure autism—and the medications can have significant side effects.

Additionally, a wide range of medications and therapies can, in some cases, be helpful for symptoms related to autism such as sleeplessness, anxiety, gastrointestinal (GI) issues, aggression, lack of social skills, lack of speech skills, sensory challenges, emotional dysregulation, and learning disabilities.

CAM Therapy and Autism

There are a variety of CAM therapies that may be recommended for children with autism. Not every child will benefit from each therapy, and the best options are those that are safe and are most likely to be accepted by the child.

CAM therapies include but are not limited to:

  • Food supplements
  • Specialized diets
  • Animal-assisted therapy
  • Arts therapies
  • Developmental therapies
  • Mind-body therapies such as yoga and biofeedback
  • Non-medical alternative therapies such as craniosacral manipulation, acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic, and massage therapy
  • Sensory therapies such as sensory diets and weighted vests

CBD oil and edibles and homeopathic and Chinese traditional remedies have been used as well.

Most Often-Recommended CAM Options

In general, the most-recommended CAM options for autism are for specific symptoms such as sleeplessness or anxiety, and they are the same CAM options that are recommended for anyone with these issues.

Specifically, they include:

  • Melatonin, a hormone made by the pineal gland, is known to be helpful for treating insomnia.
  • Multivitamins/minerals with a recommended daily allowance of nutrients can ensure proper nutrition for children with autism who are picky eaters.
  • Massage therapy is a well-established and risk-free alternative for reducing anxiety and stress.

In addition to these conservative recommendations, some doctors and therapists also recommend:

  • Fish oil supplements (omega 3 fatty acids) for hyperactivity
  • Vitamin B12 (for behavioral issues)
  • Probiotics for gastrointestinal issues

These treatments may or may not be particularly effective for any given individual; there have been only a few studies exploring their efficacy, and all of the studies are quite small. Results are inconclusive. They are considered unlikely to do any harm and are not terribly expensive.

Popular Low-Risk CAM Treatments

Many CAM treatments for autism are low-risk, though quite a few are pricey.

Eastern and Wholistic Therapies

Most hospitals and clinics now recommend a range of complementary options for any patient with issues related to anxiety, stress, and/or sleeplessness. These are readily available in most communities, though they are not usually covered by insurance.

Some of the more popular options for both children and adults with autism include:

  • Yoga
  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Craniosacral manipulation
  • Acupuncture/acupressure
  • Reiki

Depending on the individual, many of these approaches can help to relieve anxiety or provide an important tool for self-calming. They are not, however, likely to have any impact on the "core" symptoms of autism, which include challenges with social communication, abstract thinking, and sensory and emotional regulation.

Special Diets

Special diets for autism have been popular for many years. However, there is a lack of compelling research surrounding nutrition and autism.

According to the Interactive Autism Network (IAN), these diets include:

  • Casein-free diet (casein is a protein found in milk; this diet eliminates milk and all by-products of milk)
  • Gluten-free diet (gluten is a protein found in many grains; this diet eliminates such grains)
  • Feingold diet (eliminates additives and chemicals)
  • Specific carbohydrate diet (removes specific carbohydrates, including all grains, lactose, and sucrose)
  • Yeast-free diet (eliminates yeast and sugar)

While there is little solid research about special diets for people with autism, some parents notice improvements in behavior as a result of dietary change.

Children with autism have a higher than usual rate of gastrointestinal problems. For children with sensitivities to gluten, casein, or other allergenic foods, a change in diet can relieve physical symptoms—thus paving the way to improved attention and behavior.

Sensory Therapy

In 2013, the criteria for autism spectrum disorder changed to include sensory challenges, which are defined as over- and under-responsiveness to lights, sound, touch, etc. Sensory challenges can be a major problem for children during the school day, for example.

Sensory integration therapy is an outgrowth of occupational therapy. Sensory therapies can include the use of weighted vests, sensory "diets" which include brushing and joint compression, as well as sessions with a licensed therapist.

Supplements and Natural Remedies

In addition to a regular multivitamin, the most popular supplements include vitamins A, C, B6, zinc, and folic acid.

Many children with autism are very picky eaters who may not get a full range of necessary nutrients. There are few studies, however, that support the idea that additional large doses of supplements beyond a recommended multivitamin are likely to be helpful. In fact, overdoses of specific vitamins can be harmful.

Developmental, Arts, and Animal Assisted Therapies

Non-behavioral therapies can be considered CAM treatment only insofar as they are not often provided by schools or paid for by insurance companies. They are risk-free, have been shown to have emotional and behavioral benefits, and can open doors to a wide range of interests and social opportunities.

Just a few such therapies include:

  • Hippotherapy (therapeutic horseback riding)
  • Emotional support animals
  • Play therapy (therapeutic play that teaches social skills, builds symbolic thinking skills, increases communication, etc.)
  • Arts therapy (music, dance, visual art, or drama can all be helpful)
  • Recreational therapy (therapeutic participation in community-based sports and recreation)
  • Social skills therapy (therapeutic groups focused specifically on building skills for conversation and social interaction)

In addition to these therapies, which are available for people with many different physical, developmental, and emotional challenges, there is also a range of therapies developed specifically for children with autism.

A sampling of these include:

  • Floortime (developmental play therapy intended to build skills in communication, empathy, emotional connection, and symbolic thinking)
  • Early Start Denver Model Therapy (intelligence, autism symptoms, language, and daily living skills)
  • Relationship development intervention (flexible thinking, social connection)

High-Risk CAM Treatments

Some CAM treatments used for autism involve the use of risky chemicals and/or procedures; these techniques have the potential to be physically harmful, and many are based on now-debunked theories about the causes of autism.

In particular, many of these treatments are based on the theory that autism is caused by particular vaccines or by "toxins" such as environmental chemicals. In order to cure children of autism, these techniques are intended to "detoxify" the child's body.

Some of the riskier biomedical interventions available include:

  • Chelation: Removal of heavy metals from the body to undo the presumed harm done by vaccines with trace levels of heavy metals as additives
  • Hyperbaric oxygen: Treatment in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber to reduce presumed inflammation
  • Antifungal agents: To reduce presumed Candida overgrowth
  • Miracle/Master Mineral Solution (MMS): A bleach-based "treatment" intended to detoxify the body
  • Antibiotics: Administered to reduce presumed underlying illness

Research into these treatments has shown that they are not helpful, and have the potential to be painful and even dangerous.

A Word From Verywell

CAM treatments have a place in managing autism, though neither they nor any mainstream treatment is likely to lead to a cure.

When selecting treatments, it is important to ask these questions:

  • What is the hoped-for positive outcome?
  • Are there risks associated with the treatment?
  • What do researchers and other trusted sources say about the treatment?
  • Can I afford the treatment if it is not paid for by schools or insurance?

If you select an alternative treatment, it is important to make observations of your child's present level of behavior or functioning in order to compare it to potential positive outcomes. Without a yardstick, it can be impossible to accurately gauge whether a treatment is making a difference.

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8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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