Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Autism

Autism is a form of neurodivergence, which means it is simply the way some people interact with and experience the world. Because being autistic is neither an illness or a disease, it doesn’t need to be treated or cured. Attempts to do so harm and endanger autistic people.

However, autism is a disability for most autistic people, so traits such as light sensitivity, restricted eating patterns, and emotional outbursts should be addressed. The use of complementary and alternative (CAM) methods can be helpful. Most of these methods are low risk and some have the potential to be helpful. Several CAM methods promoted for autism, however, carry a level of risk and may be dangerous.

Before starting any alternative or complementary therapy, it’s wise to consult a physician to be sure the therapy is safe, ethical, 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.

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Standard Therapies for Autism

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

Standard methods for autism include:

Most of these can be helpful, though the medications can have significant side effects. The medical community views ABA as the standard for “treating” autism, but some medical professionals and autistic self-advocates disagree. One of their critiques lies in ABA viewing autism as a flaw and the therapy’s subsequent focus on conformity and suppressing autistic behavior. The other main critique is that there is evidence of increased post-traumatic stress symptoms in autistic people who’ve undergone ABA.

Additionally, a wide range of medications and therapies can, in some cases, be helpful for symptoms that co-occur with autism such as sleeplessness, anxiety, gastrointestinal (GI) issues, body language and tone interpretation, sensory sensitivity, emotional dysregulation, and learning disabilities.

CAM Therapy and Autism

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

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, though there is controversy on whether CBD is safe for children.

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 autistic people who have restricted eating patterns.
  • 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 therapies and supplements 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 Methods

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

Traditional Asian and Holistic 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 autistic children and adults include:

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

Depending on the individual, many of these approaches can help to relieve co-occurring anxiety or provide an important tool for self-calming. They are not, however, likely to have any impact on core autistic traits.

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)

There is little solid research about special diets for autistic people, though some parents notice improvements in behavior as a result of dietary change. These improvements are likely related to alleviating food sensitivities the children have.

Autistic people have a higher than usual rate of gastrointestinal problems. For people 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 hypo- and hyper-reactivity to sensory stimuli, which are defined as over- and under-responsiveness to lights, sound, touch, etc. Sensory stimuli can be a major problem for autistic children or adults during the school or work day.

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. However, there is no evidence that this therapy is effective long-term.

Supplements and Natural Remedies

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

Many autistic people 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 unlikely 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 methods 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)

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) are also two helpful therapies for autistic people. Both methodologies are also endorsed by autistic-led organizations as being more ethical, safe, and effective.

High-Risk CAM “Treatments”

Some CAM methods aim to “treat” autism and 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 people of autism, these techniques are intended to “detoxify” the person’s body. These ideas are actively harmful and are based on eugenics.

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 very painful and even dangerous.

A Word From Verywell

CAM methods have a place in managing some traits of autism. When selecting what’s best, it is important to ask these questions:

  • What is the hoped-for positive outcome?
  • Is this method aiming to “treat” autism?
  • Are there risks associated with the method?
  • What do researchers and other trusted sources say?
  • Can I afford the therapy if it is not paid for by schools or insurance?

If you select an alternative therapy, it is important to make observations of the present level of behavior and wellbeing in order to compare it to potential positive (or negative) outcomes. Without a yardstick, it can be impossible to accurately gauge whether a therapy is making a difference.

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