5 Alternative Treatments For Autism Spectrum Disorder

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Medically reviewed by Gopal Ramakrishnan Asst. Prof.

Alternative Treatments for Autism Spectrum Disorder

In many ways, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) remains a mystery. We do not understand what causes it and as a result, we do not know how to cure it. However, over time a number of conventional therapies have been developed that can help people with ASD.

Most of those therapies require a fairly consistent effort over a long period of time, as a person with ASD learns coping skills and new habits. Many people have turned to complementary and alternative treatments, hoping that they might make things easier. Alternative treatments for autism include things like nutritional supplements, changes in diet, massage, exercise, and different kinds of therapy.

Some of these treatments are based on theorized explanations for the cause of ASD. Others attempt to relieve the symptoms of ASD in a way similar to conventional treatments. While reports indicate that alternative treatments are helpful, most of these treatments lack scientific evidence for their use.

Alternative Treatments For Autism

The number of diagnosed cases of Autism Spectrum Disorder has skyrocketed. As we have mentioned, the causes for ASD are not understood, though some people have speculated on potential causes. Combine these two facts and it may not be surprising that people are looking for alternative treatments. Examples of alternative treatments for ASD include:

While many of these therapies have been studied to some extent, research remains preliminary for most of them. Some, like nutrient supplements or a restrictive diet, may be based on a few hypotheses regarding the cause of ASD. Some other treatments are focused on addressing symptoms in order to make life a little easier. Massage, acupuncture, and music therapy fit in that category.

Remember that alternative treatments should be approached with some caution, as they generally lack a lot of scientific support.

5 Alternative Treatments For Autism Spectrum Disorder

Supplements

This can include supplements like melatonin, vitamin B, folic acid, l-carnosine, and more. A few of the supplements are aimed at addressing specific concerns. Melatonin, for example, is intended to alleviate some of insomnia that can come with ASD. It is generally effective for that purpose and safe.

Other supplements, for example, l-carnosine, might be intended to help with some health issues. As there is some indication that l-carnosine can be neuroprotective, some people believe it might help with ASD. The evidence for this use is somewhat lacking.

The use of others may be based largely on speculation. There is some indication that oxidative stress can be exacerbated in people with ASD. As a result, some people have tried various ways to prevent and reduce oxidative stress to help with the symptoms of ASD. Both B12 and folic acid are used for this purpose. Some preliminary studies support this use, though it needs more work to confirm that.

Iron supplements, omega-3 fatty acids, and other supplements have also been suggested for treating ASD. Frequently, there is no real downside to taking nutritional supplements. They are generally a low-risk option that might be of some help.

Autism Spectrum Disorder can be tough on the people who suffer from it, particularly if they end up eating a limited diet. Nutrient deficiencies may therefore not be that surprising. It is currently unknown whether nutrient deficiencies are a cause of ASD or a result of behavior associated with the condition.

Diet

Diet is increasingly being recognized as playing an important role in health. In regards to autism spectrum disorder, there is mounting evidence that gut health is connected to the condition. There are a few ideas as to how this connection functions and how that should affect the diet of people with ASD.

The diet most often recommended for people with ASD is a gluten-free, casein-free diet. Gluten is a compound in many grains, while casein is usually found in dairy products. It is believed that both gluten and casein can trigger an allergic reaction, which may be connected to ASD in some way.

It has been reported that some people have had their symptoms reduced. One small study seemed to show an improvement, while a larger and more comprehensive study suggests a gluten-free, casein-free diet was not associated with any improvement. 

For similar reasons probiotics and other methods of supporting gut health might be helpful. As with diet, there is no definitive evidence that this treatment will be helpful.

As with nutritional supplements, people with ASD may also develop other conditions alongside or due to autism. Treating those problems can improve their lives, including the symptoms of ASD, while not directly treating ASD.

Exercise

It is not always fun, but it is pretty good for whatever ails you. People with autism, particularly adults, generally are less active than neurotypical people. Rather than exercising, they spend more of their time indoors and sitting down. As a result, obesity and other conditions related to lack of exercise are common in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

When they do exercise, however, there is usually a wide range of benefits. People with ASD may find they get more practice in social situations due to exercising. Motor skills and general coordination also improve. Exercising is also useful for burning off the extra energy that can result from overstimulation. 

Exercise should start small and build up. Remember the goal isn’t a great beach bod, but an improvement in general fitness. 

Massage, Acupuncture, Yoga, etc.

These mind-body treatments may make a good deal of sense to many people. As people with Autism Spectrum Disorder seem to have trouble connecting with and managing their own bodies, practice making that connection can be very helpful.

Things like acupuncture, yoga, and meditation can also be great for managing depression and anxiety. Acupuncture, perhaps unsurprisingly, has been mainly studied in China with some promising results. Little study has been done on yoga.

Massage is one of the few alternative treatments that have a fair amount of scientific backing. A number of randomized controlled trials showed that massage helps calm people, particularly children. Parents are often encouraged to learn how to give their child a massage, as it can help strengthen the bond with their child, as well.

Music and Animal Therapy

Music therapy involves listening to and potentially learning to play music. This is seen to encourage a feeling of engagement and community and strengthening a relationship with the environment. There is some evidence that is helpful, though there are few rigorous studies regarding music therapy. As with a good diet, nutritional supplements, and exercise, there is no real downside and a potential benefit.

Animal therapy follows a similar logic, though the connection formed is with an animal. That connection is seen as a stepping stone to relationships with their peers. As with music therapy, there is no rigorous evidence that animal therapy is helpful. However, it might do some good, while being unlikely to do much harm.

One disadvantage for both of these therapies is that they can be somewhat expensive. 

Conventional Treatments For Autism

While alternative treatments can be helpful, they usually are part of a larger treatment plan. Alternative treatments are often called complementary treatments, in that they can complement conventional treatments, making them  more effective.

Conventional treatments usually center around two areas: 

  • Behavioral therapy
  • Medication

Those approaches might be supported by physical therapy, social skills training, or speech therapy, tailored to the challenges a specific person with ASD will face. 

There are only two medications that are approved for treating symptoms of ASD. Both are approved for use in relieving irritability in children. Other medications are used to treat symptoms of ASD but haven’t been evaluated when used specifically for ASD. 

Called ‘off-label use’, this practice is common and has been the source of many beneficial treatments. It’s also associated with a higher chance of an adverse reaction to a medication. Most people with ASD will take several medications to treat different aspects of their condition.

Behavioral therapy is a bit more complex. It involves encouraging wanted behaviors while discouraging unwanted behaviors. Behavioral therapists will often work on life skills, social skills, and methods of coping with ASD.

Autism Spectrum Disorder remains a poorly understood condition. This lack of understanding means that it’s difficult to find truly effective treatments, backed by scientific evidence. However, additional scientific studies are underway and our understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorder continues to grow.


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Medically reviewed by:

Sean Newton has nearly ten years of experience as a health and fitness writer, focusing on diet and its effects on your health. He also is an avid athlete and martial artist, specializing in bodyweight exercises and movement training. Together with an evidence-based approach to good health, his goal is to lay out the facts for readers, so they can make informed choices.

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