The most recent U.S. Government statistics estimate that 1 in 68 children have autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD refers to a complex group of generally lifelong developmental disorders, usually diagnosed in childhood. Some of the characteristics of ASD may include problems communicating; difficulty relating to people, things, or events; repetitive movements or behaviors; and problems adjusting to unfamiliar surroundings or routines. Although no cure has been found for ASD, a variety of therapies, including behavioral management therapy and physical therapy, may help address the symptoms associated with ASD.
Many parents try complementary health approaches, usually along with conventional medical care, for their children with ASD to help manage symptoms. Here are seven things to know about complementary health approaches for children with ASD:
- There’s very little high quality research on complementary health approaches for ASD.
- There’s no scientific evidence that secretin (a gastrointestinal hormone), hyperbaric oxygen, chelation therapies, or antifungal agents help people with ASD, and they may be dangerous.
- Melatonin may help with sleep problems in children with ASD. A 2011 review of the scientific literature found that melatonin increased total sleep duration by an average of 73 minutes and decreased sleep latency by an average of 66 minutes. Similar beneficial results were observed when melatonin was compared with placebo.
- There is some evidence that music therapy may help to improve some social and behavioral skills in children with ASD. A 2014 review of scientific studies concluded that music therapy may help children with ASD to improve their skills in areas such as social interaction and communication, and may also contribute to increasing social adaptation skills.
- Studies have examined omega-3 fatty acids; acupuncture; a modified version of mindfulness-based therapy; massage therapy, including qi gong massage; and the hormone oxytocin. It’s not clear whether they improve ASD symptoms, and they should not be used in place of conventional treatments.
- Special diets may help some people with ASD but their nutritional well-being needs to be carefully monitored before and while on the diet. There’s very limited evidence that the high-fat, very low carbohydrate “ketogenic” diet may help with seizures sometimes associated with autism. People with ASD need to be monitored when they are on a special diet so they avoid any harmful side effects.
- Talk to your child’s health care provider to get help assessing what, if any, complementary approach would help your child, since children respond differently to interventions.