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NCCIH Clinical Digest

for health professionals

Autism Spectrum Disorder and Complementary Health Approaches

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April 2016
An autistic child with parent

Estimates of the prevalence of autism in the United States vary, but the most recent U.S. Government statistics estimate that about 1 in 68 children (or 1.5 percent of 8-year-old children) have autism spectrum disorder (ASD). There is no cure for ASD, but research shows that early diagnosis and interventions, such as during preschool or before, are more likely to have major positive effects on symptoms and later skills. Many parents choose complementary health approaches for their children with ASD to help manage symptoms; however, despite this use there is a paucity of high-quality research focused on complementary approaches for ASD. Of the ASD research that has been conducted, most has been in the pediatric population; very few trials of complementary health approaches have been conducted in adults with ASD.

The existing evidence base indicates that melatonin may be beneficial for sleep disorders associated with ASD. Music therapy may have a positive effect on social interaction, and communication and behavioral skills in those affected by ASDs. However, there is insufficient evidence to determine whether other complementary health approaches such as modified diets, supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids or vitamin B6, or chelation are efficacious for ASD symptoms.

This issue of the digest provides information on the evidence base of several commonly used complementary health approaches for ASD.

Modality and Summary of Current Evidence

Melatonin

Natural Product

There is some limited evidence that suggests melatonin may help with sleep problems in children with ASD.

Read more about the evidence base of melatonin for autism spectrum disorder

Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation

Natural Product

At present, there is insufficient evidence that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation is an effective treatment for ASD.

Read more about the evidence base of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation for autism spectrum disorder

Probiotics

Natural Product

The current clinical evidence does not support the use of probiotics to modify behavior in children with ASD.

Read more about the evidence base of probiotics for autism spectrum disorder

Secretin

Natural Product

Evidence suggests that single- or multiple-dose intravenous secretin, a gastrointestinal hormone, is not effective as a treatment for ASD.

Read more about the evidence base of secretin for autism spectrum disorder

Vitamin B6 and Magnesium

Natural Product

To date, there is insufficient evidence to support the use of vitamin B6 and magnesium as a treatment option for ASD.

Read more about the evidence base of vitamin B6 and magnesium for autism spectrum disorder

Chelation

Biologic

There is no evidence that indicates the effectiveness of pharmaceutical chelation as an intervention for ASD. Furthermore, there is substantial evidence that there is no link between heavy metals and autism. There have been previous reports of serious adverse events from intravenous chelation, including hypocalcemia, renal impairment, and reported death.

Read more about the evidence base of chelation for autism spectrum disorder

Gluten-Free and Casein-Free Diet

Special Diet

There is evidence that parents commonly put their children with ASD on exclusion diets. Despite this common practice, there is insufficient evidence to support the use of gluten-free and/or casein free diets as an effective treatment for children with ASD. Nutritionists have raised concerns about potential harms and risks of such diets, but evidence to support these risks is lacking.

Read more about the evidence base of gluten-free and casein-free diet for autism spectrum disorder

Ketogenic Diet

Special Diet

There is limited evidence that the high-fat, very low carbohydrate “ketogenic” diet may help individuals with seizure disorders, which are sometimes associated with autism.

Read more about the evidence base of ketogenic diet for autism spectrum disorder

Acupuncture

Mind-Body Practice

Results of clinical trials on the effectiveness of acupuncture for ASD have been mixed, but there is currently no conclusive evidence to support the use of acupuncture for the treatment of ASD.

Read more about the evidence base of acupuncture for autism spectrum disorder

Music Therapy

Mind-Body Practice

There is some evidence that music therapy may help to improve some social and behavioral skills in children with ASD.

Read more about the evidence base of music therapy for autism spectrum disorder

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy

Other Approach

Current evidence does not support the use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy as an effective treatment for ASD.

Read more about the evidence base of hyperbaric oxygen therapy for autism spectrum disorder

Scientific Literature

NCCIH Clinical Digest is a service of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, NIH, DHHS. NCCIH Clinical Digest, a monthly e-newsletter, offers evidence-based information on complementary health approaches, including scientific literature searches, summaries of NCCIH-funded research, fact sheets for patients, and more.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health is dedicated to exploring complementary health products and practices in the context of rigorous science, training complementary health researchers, and disseminating authoritative information to the public and professionals. For additional information, call NCCIH's Clearinghouse toll-free at 1-888-644-6226, or visit the NCCIH Web site at nccih.nih.gov. NCCIH is 1 of 27 institutes and centers at the National Institutes of Health, the Federal focal point for medical research in the United States.

Copyright

Content is in the public domain and may be reprinted, except if marked as copyrighted (©). Please credit the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health as the source. All copyrighted material is the property of its respective owners and may not be reprinted without their permission.

This page last modified July 25, 2017