Complementary Therapies for Autism

Explore the role of autism and complementary therapies, from music therapy to supplements. Learn more.

reuben kesherim
Ruben Kesherim
July 8, 2024

Complementary Therapies for Autism

Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex condition that impacts the brain's normal development of social and communication skills. ASD is a "spectrum disorder" that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees, hence the term "spectrum" in its name.

ASD Overview

ASD is estimated to affect about 1 in 36 children and approximately 2.21 percent of adults. The prevalence of ASD is estimated to be 1 in 68, which is a significant increase from less than 1 in 500 a decade ago. The increase may be due to the rise in copy number variation and gene variations, with multiple genes being involved. Synaptic plasticity, synaptic scaffolding proteins, receptors, cell adhesion molecules, chromatin remodeling, transcription, protein synthesis, degradation, and actin cytoskeleton dynamics are all implicated in ASD. Examples of genes involved include neuroligins, SHANKs, CNTNAP2, and FMR1 [2].

The type and intensity of supports and services that a person on the autism spectrum may require will vary depending on their individual needs, ranging from minimal to intensive. Additionally, many individuals with autism and their families use complementary health approaches, often along with conventional medical care, to address concerns and improve their health and well-being.

Symptoms of Autism

Autism often includes significant challenges in social communication and interaction, as well as repetitive behaviors and unusual or intense interests. Some individuals with autism have intellectual or language disabilities, and many experience sensory differences, including high or low sensitivity to sounds, light, textures, tastes, and physical touch.

Symptoms of Autism Description
Social Communication and Interaction Challenges in social communication and interaction, including difficulties in understanding and responding to social cues.
Repetitive Behaviors Involvement in repetitive behaviors and having unusual or intense interests.
Intellectual or Language Disabilities Some individuals with autism may have intellectual or language disabilities.
Sensory Differences Many individuals with autism experience sensory differences, including high or low sensitivity to sounds, light, textures, tastes, and physical touch.

These symptoms often appear in early childhood, typically before the age of three. However, they may also appear later in life. With early intervention and appropriate therapy, individuals with autism can improve their developmental outcomes and lead fulfilling lives. Exploring autism and complementary therapies is a key part of many families' strategies for supporting their loved ones with ASD.

Complementary Therapies for Autism

In the context of autism and complementary therapies, there are numerous approaches that focus on reducing symptoms and enhancing the quality of life for those living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This section will cover three such therapies: music therapy, sensory integration therapy, and acupuncture.

Music Therapy

Music therapy is an innovative approach where music and its elements (sound, rhythm, melody, and harmony) are utilized by trained practitioners to facilitate and promote communication, relationships, learning, and other significant therapeutic objectives.

According to a study cited by the NCBI, music therapy has shown promising results in improving symptoms of ASD, such as enhancing social interaction and communication. This therapy is thought to stimulate both hemispheres of the brain, subsequently enhancing cognitive abilities and emotional awareness.

Sensory Integration Therapy

Sensory integration therapy, often administered by occupational therapists, is designed to help individuals with ASD cope better with sensory information from their environment. The aim is to improve the brain's ability to process sensory information so that individuals can respond appropriately to their environment.

The NCBI has cited studies indicating promising results from sensory integration therapy for individuals with ASD. Improvements were noted in areas such as social interaction, communication, and behavior, suggesting that this form of therapy can be a beneficial component of a comprehensive treatment plan.


Acupuncture, a key component of traditional Chinese medicine, involves the insertion of thin needles into specific points on the body. It's believed to help balance the body's energy flow, known as Qi.

In the context of ASD, acupuncture is thought to have a calming effect, reducing agitation and potentially enhancing focus and attention. According to the NCBI, acupuncture has shown promising results in improving symptoms of ASD. However, as with any therapy, it's important to ensure that the procedure is administered by a certified professional to ensure safety and effectiveness.

It's important to note that while these complementary therapies can provide beneficial support, they should not replace conventional treatments for autism. Instead, they should be considered as part of a comprehensive treatment plan, always under the guidance of healthcare professionals familiar with the individual's unique needs and circumstances.

Popular CAM Treatments for ASD

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments are becoming increasingly popular among parents and caregivers of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). These treatments offer a holistic approach to managing symptoms of autism. Here are some common CAM treatments used for ASD:

Vitamin and Mineral Supplements

Supplementation is a widely adopted strategy in managing ASD symptoms. According to a study reported in PMC, 75% of children with ASD consume supplements, with multivitamins, vitamin D, omega 3, probiotics, and magnesium being the most prevalent.

Certain supplements like high-dose pyridoxine (vitamin B6) and magnesium have been shown to improve social interactions, communication, and stereotyped behaviors in individuals with ASD. Additionally, supplementation with methyl B12 may improve social relatedness, language, and behavior problems in individuals with ASD.

Melatonin for Sleep

Sleep problems are a common issue in children with ASD. Melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles, is often used as a sleep aid. Research has shown that melatonin is a safe and effective treatment for sleep delay problems in children with ASD. It has been found to increase sleep duration and reduce sleep onset latency.

Massage Therapy

Massage therapy is another beneficial CAM treatment for children with ASD. It involves hands-on manipulation of the body's soft tissues to promote relaxation and well-being. According to a study cited by source, massage therapy has been shown to improve social interaction, communication, sleep, and overall behavior in children with ASD.

While these CAM treatments have been beneficial for some, it's important to remember that the effectiveness of these treatments can vary from person to person. It's always advised to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new treatment regimen.

Parental Perspectives on CAM

Understanding the perspectives of parents who have children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can shed light on the reasons why they turn to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) as part of the treatment for their child's symptoms. It also provides insight into their experiences in researching these treatments and the sources of information they rely on.

Seeking CAM Treatments

Parents of children with ASD often use CAM to treat their children's symptoms. However, the process of making decisions about CAM treatment can be complex and influenced by a variety of factors. They often encounter a gap in understanding how and why they make their decisions about these treatments, and how "evidence" influences their decision-making process.

The experience of researching CAM treatments for their children with ASD can be overwhelming and time-consuming, often leaving parents feeling without direction.

To assess the credibility of CAM treatments, parents often rely on personal judgments, including their "gut instinct" and "common sense". Additionally, they value testimonials from other parents who have used CAM treatments, providing them with first-hand accounts of experiences similar to their own.

Sources of Information

Parents use a variety of sources to research CAM treatments, including books, magazines, social media, websites, CAM practitioners, and other parents. However, the information they find is often conflicting, adding to the complexity of their decision-making process.

Despite the challenges, parents express a desire for easier access to quality information on CAM treatments for their child's ASD. They would appreciate a centralized and trustworthy source of information that is easy to access and user-friendly [4].

In conclusion, understanding the parental perspective in seeking and researching CAM treatments for children with ASD can help healthcare providers and researchers create better support systems and information sources. It underlines the importance of reliable, easy-to-access information on autism and complementary therapies.

Effectiveness of CAM Treatments

When considering the effectiveness of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in the treatment of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it's crucial to evaluate the current state of evidence-based research and understand the ongoing debates surrounding certain treatments.

Evidence-Based Research

Despite the rise in popularity of CAM therapies for ASD, there is no conclusive evidence supporting their efficacy. However, promising results have been reported for a few, including music therapy, sensory integration therapy, acupuncture, and massage therapy source.

In relation to supplements, which 75% of children with ASD consume, several have shown positive effects. High-dose pyridoxine (vitamin B6) and magnesium supplementation have been shown to improve social interactions, communication, and stereotyped behaviors. Methyl B12 supplementation may improve social relatedness, language, and behavior problems. Additionally, multivitamin/mineral supplements have been found to improve sleep, gastrointestinal symptoms, and overall behavior source.

Moreover, Melatonin has been found to be a safe and effective treatment for sleep delay problems, increasing sleep duration and reducing sleep onset latency for children with ASD source.

Controversial Treatments

While some CAM therapies and treatments have shown promise, others have drawn criticism due to lack of evidence or concerns about product safety. For example, certain supplements, such as adrenal cortex extract, have been used despite the absence of demonstrated product safety PMC.

Parents of children with ASD often navigate complex and time-consuming research processes when considering CAM treatments, utilizing a variety of sources including books, magazines, social media, websites, CAM practitioners, and other parents. Often, the information discovered can be conflicting, adding to the challenges parents face NCBI.

Ultimately, the decisions parents make about CAM treatments are not just influenced by scientific evidence but also by personal judgments, including "gut instinct" and "common sense". Testimonials from other parents who have used CAM treatments also play a significant role in their decision-making process NCBI.

As research continues in the field of autism and complementary therapies, it remains essential for parents and caregivers to have access to accurate, up-to-date information to make informed decisions about the best course of treatment for their child.

Integrative Approaches to Autism

In the realm of autism and complementary therapies, integrative approaches offer a comprehensive way to address the various challenges faced by individuals on the autism spectrum. These approaches combine traditional therapies with complementary treatments, aiming to improve quality of life and overall functionality.

Multidisciplinary Evaluations

The assessment of autism should ideally be done by a multidisciplinary team. This team may include a psychiatrist, psychologist, special educator, occupational therapist, audiologist, and speech therapist. The involvement of the child's pediatrician is also important, especially for effectively handling physical comorbidities [2].

A multidisciplinary approach ensures a comprehensive evaluation of the child’s needs, facilitating a well-rounded treatment strategy. By considering the child's physical, psychological, and developmental needs, this approach can provide a more accurate diagnosis and a more effective treatment plan.

Non-Pharmacological Interventions

Non-pharmacological treatments are the mainstay for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These treatments include structured educational and behavioral interventions, developmental interventions, interventions for communication, educational assistance, sensory integration therapy, and other strategies like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety and anger management.

Other popular non-pharmacological therapies include Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), considered a gold standard of autism therapy for its success in modifying behaviors and limiting certain autism traits.

Medication is indicated for children who are unresponsive to non-pharmacological interventions or when behavioral issues have a negative impact on functioning. This includes antipsychotic drugs for behaviors that are out of control or potentially harmful, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for depression and/or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), stimulant drugs like Ritalin and Adderall for hyperactivity, and medications for insomnia.

It's important to note that early intervention is key in the treatment of autistic children. The sooner children receive appropriate interventions, the better the prognosis [5].

While non-evidence-based treatments are not recommended, the use of Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM) is higher in children and adolescents with ASD compared to those without ASD, with approximately 28% to 51% of children with ASD using CAM treatments [6]. The most commonly used CAM treatments in children with ASD are modified/special diets, vitamins/minerals, and food supplements.

These integrative approaches to autism highlight the importance of a comprehensive, multidisciplinary strategy in addressing the complex needs of individuals on the autism spectrum. By combining traditional and complementary therapies, these approaches aim to improve the overall quality of life for those living with autism.