Treating autism: Diet, ABA, and more

Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse  April 24, 2009 08:26 AM

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No one really knows what causes autism. A recent article in Science Direct indicates that children living near toxic waste seem more likely to have autism. Though the thimerosal/MMR vaccine theory has been debunked, many parents feel that the mercury-laced preservative is linked to their children's autism by triggering a toxic tipping point or otherwise damaging the immune system.

Last year, some studies showed a possible link between autism and certain metabolic dieases can be sensitive to vaccine toxicity, leading to some autism-like symptoms. And of course, there's the genetic link: “Autism is probably caused by many, many things, most of them genetic, and this is one of them,” mitochondrial expert Salvatore DiMauro of Columbia University and the author of a study of autistic individuals with mitochondrial disease, tells the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative.

With the autism rate on the rise, parents are turning to a number of different resources and interventions in the hope of finding a way to manage their children's autistic behaviors, improve their lives, and maybe find a way to help them heal. There's a great discussion about various methods going on in the comments section of the first post I wrote for Autism Awareness Month; here's a little more information about three of the most popular interventions (please talk to your child's doctor(s) for more infomation and guidance).

Applied Behavior Analysis: ABA focuses on understanding how an individual's actions and skills are related to and affected by their environment, including social settings. The goal is to use various techniques, such as positive reinforcement, to encourage useful or desired behaviors while minizing harmful or negative behaviors. According to the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, "ABA has been effective for teaching a vast range of skills to people with disabilities as well as to many other people in every setting in which people live, study and work."

There have been hundreds of published studies showing that certain ABA techniques can help individuals with autism learn specific skills, such as how to communicate, develop relationships, play, care for themselves, learn in school, succeed at work, and participate fully and productively in family and community activities, regardless of their age.

For more information on ABA, or on choosing a well-trained specialist, visit the New England Center for Children's resource page or the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies autism page.

The GFCF Diet and the SCD: Our 10-year-old son, who has Asperger's Syndrome, has been on a gluten-free and casein-free diet for about five years now (as recommended by several doctors, who still follow his treatment). It turns out he may have a genetic predisposition to gluten sensitivity, and instead of processing gluten properly, his gut leaks it out into his bloodstream, where it eventually acts like an opiate, plugging receptors in his brain and making him act loopy, spacy, and distant. Even now, five years later, it's easy to tell if he's ingested gluten -- the spaciness sets in within a day or two and he often ends up with stomach pain, which gradually disappears over the course of several weeks of being back on the diet.

Another option some doctors suggest is the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, or SCD. Based on chemistry, biology, and clinical studies, the diet allows or prohibits certain foods based on their molecular structure. Complex sugars and starches are not allowed, but simple ones -- think bananas, peas, and nuts -- are, because they do not need to be broken down by the digestive organs and, as such, do not tax the patient's already-damaged digestive system.

According to Pecanbread.com, a site devoted to the SCD: "The diet of early man is one of meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, nuts, low-sugar fruits, and certain oils. Starches, grains, pasta, legumes, and breads have only been consumed for a mere 10,000 years. Many people are not adapted to these types of foods yet."

There is a case to be made for a link between dietary intervention and a change in the severity of symptoms of autism. "If I were to put a gallon of milk in my car's gas tank, people would think that I was nuts," says nutritionist and autism advocate Mika Bradford, whose youngest son was diagnosed with autism about 10 years ago. "But when I suggested that what my son was eating affected his moods and behavior, I was belittled. We know that what we eat can affect our weight, blood-sugar levels, and how we feel. Dietary intake is directly related to medical conditions like Celiac disease and diabetes. Why would we diminish its role in other states of disease or behavioral diagnosis?"

Dr. Tim Buie, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, has studied the connection between gastrointestinal issues and children with autism. On the Autism Network for Dietary Intervention website and at several conferences he's stated that he believes that many of the symptoms of autism are actually indicators that the child is in physical pain and unable to communicate about it. His study of more than 500 gastrointestinal endoscopies with biopsies on autistic children show that "more than half of these children had treatable gastrointestinal problems that ranged from moderate to severe including esophagitis, gastritis and enterocolitis along with the presence of lymphoid nodular hyperplasia."

Biomedical Invervention and Dietary Supplementation: There are a host of controversial interventions that hinge on removing toxins like heavy metals or supplementing the patient with things vitamins, minerals, or enzymes that the patient may not be producing on his own. The DAN (Defeat Autism Now) method combines biomedical, nutritional, and behavioral therapies to "recover" children with autism. The majority of mainstream doctors, however, do not recommend the DAN protocol, pointing out that "certain biomedical interventions, like chelation, are considered to be potentially dangerous," though the link between environmental factors, like toxins, and autism is becoming more accepted. Discover Magazine ran an article recently on biomedical intervention, in which Jill Neimark writes, "A vivid analogy is that the genes load the gun, but environment pulls the trigger," leading to an array of symptoms that need to be treated in the body as a whole, not just neurologically.

In Healing and Preventing Autism, Jenny McCarthy and Dr. Jerry Kartzinel detail several of the most popular supplements -- vitamin B12, digestive enzymes, fatty acids, Zinc, selenium, calcium, and probiotics, among many others -- in an easy-to-follow, conversational way (though the book seems more geared toward reassuring like-minded readers, rather than presenting the pros and cons of different interventions and theories).

I'm a mom and a journalist, not a doctor -- whatever methods people decide to explore in treating autism, it's imperative that treatment take place under the supervision of a qualified doctor or, in the case of ABA, a qualified, trained therapist. As with any medical condition, autism treatment is not a do-it-yourself project.

Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at lalphonse@globe.com.

Recent posts:

15 questions to ask a new babysitter

Do you invite the whole class to your kid's birthday party?


My toddler bit his friend!

Talking to kids about money

Posts about Autism Awareness:

Inside the mind of a child with autism

Autism awareness: Resources that can help

Does my child have autism?

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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16 comments so far...
  1. It is not quite accurate to say that the vaccine/thimerosal argument has been debunked. There is still a community of researchers that support that theory. But you are right in that we have yet to pinpoint the exact cause. For that reason, we need more funding to study it. Thank you for the awareness article.

    Thanks for your comment, an aunt. It would probably more accurate for me to have written that the link between thimerosal and autism has not been scientifically and definitively proven, though many people still support the theory. -- LMA

    Posted by an aunt April 24, 09 04:43 PM
  1. My son has an allergy to peanuts and I have come to learn more about autism thanks to the overlap that exists between the online autism community and online food allergy community. Your post provides a helpful overview for those of us less familiar with day-to-day life with an autistic child. Thank you!

    Posted by Jennifer B April 25, 09 07:26 AM
  1. Barbara,
    Excellent informative reporting. Great resource for background info on Autism treatments.

    Posted by Bill April 25, 09 09:04 AM
  1. Whoops sorry Lylah I see now that it was written by you. Great writing!

    Thank you, Bill! -- LMA

    Posted by Bill April 25, 09 09:12 AM
  1. The only cure for autism is chelation to remove the mercury. All of the other garbage you discuss here only alleviates some symptoms in a small number of children.
    Mercury is the cause of autism and I have proved it by curing my son with chelation alone. Please stop giving out this horrible advice about diets and behavioral nonsense. You must address the cause, mercury, to help these children.

    Posted by John Best April 26, 09 02:48 PM
  1. I've been a fan of probiotics for some time for digestive and immune health, and have wondered about the connection between these friendly bacteria and Autism (my cousin is has been diagnosed with Autism). Thanks for the great info written in an informed and accessible way. It has spurred me to research this topic further.
    - Anna M. nutri-health.com

    Posted by Anna M April 27, 09 11:28 AM
  1. Celiac disease, which is a wheat allergy, can be tested with a blood test. Most adults with autistic spectrum disorders have none of these health problems that people are talking about that are affecting their children. This makes me very curious. I think the form of autism that they have is much different and has a different cause than those of us who were obviously genetically predisposed. Professionals are using the term "autisms" (notice the plural), to discriminate between the childhood illnesses and the rest of us who have ASDs but are perfectly healthy.

    Posted by Stephanie April 27, 09 02:42 PM
  1. It's terribly unprofessional and irresponsible to promote therapies/claim causes that have been disproven (vaccines -- studies on millions of children disprove this connection) or are not proven, but are costly, in terms of money and time, to implement (diets). While behavioral treatment is costly, as you stated, it have been proven. Families should not be encouraged to waste precious resources for little benefit.

    Posted by Jeni April 27, 09 03:47 PM
  1. John Best: really? Please add links to the scientifically reviewed articles showing that this is more than anecdotal.

    Posted by bv April 27, 09 04:47 PM
  1. John Best: Do you think if it was as easy as that my nephew would still be autistic? I think maybe you are not in touch with reality at all. I completely agree that Autism is attributed to more then just one thing. I think the information given is very accurate. Celiac is not a wheat allergy it is a gluten allergy which is a vital protein in wheat, barley, sorghum, and rye. I and many in my family including my nephew are all celiacs.

    Posted by KML April 28, 09 09:55 PM
  1. I found lots of interesting information on www.boston.com. The post was professionally written and I feel like the author has extensive knowledge in the subject. www.boston.com keep it that way.

    Posted by Payday Loans April 30, 09 06:30 PM
  1. John Best, autism is a lifelong disorder and it has never been demonstrated that mercury has anything to do with it. The symptoms of autism are not the same as mercury poisoning. Thimerosal has been absent from scheduled childhood vaccines since 2002, and the rate of autism has not plummeted, as would be expected if mercury had anything to do with autism.

    Posted by AutismNewsBeat May 2, 09 04:18 PM
  1. A quick perusal of John's blog (hatingautism.blogspot.com) with its tales of Illuminati cover ups, New World Order takes overs etc will illustrate exactly what you think KML - he is not in touch with reality.

    Posted by Kev May 2, 09 04:52 PM
  1. Dear KML Just FYI : Celiac disease is technically Not an Allergy. It is an Intolerance to gluten a protein in wheat, barley and rye. Oats are discouraged due to contaminination from the other 3 grains. (Oats if grown on a dedicated field,are believed to be okay.) The term allergy is part of a different immune response versus the response triggered with celiac disease. Someone may have a wheat allergy and not have celiac disease. This can be confusing to many. Also, sorghum is also gluten free. Check out celiac.com for good info.

    Posted by Lisa May 6, 09 05:12 PM
  1. John Best displays the qualities of a snake oil salesman.

    1. He says that he can cure Autism.
    2. He believes that the mainstream medical establishment is conspiring to keep people sick for profits.
    3. He harrasses opponents and considers them as conspirators because they oppose his claims and consider him a quack.

    I have a video on YouTube which might better explain ABA, and other Treatments on autism entitiled "Jenny McCarthy is wrong on autism."

    Here's the URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBTUANmJCC4

    Posted by AlexKenas July 22, 09 12:13 PM
  1. Long Live John Best!!!!!

    I owe you a beer next time.

    Elucidatus..

    Posted by Elucidatus Aurellious November 19, 09 05:49 PM
 
16 comments so far...
  1. It is not quite accurate to say that the vaccine/thimerosal argument has been debunked. There is still a community of researchers that support that theory. But you are right in that we have yet to pinpoint the exact cause. For that reason, we need more funding to study it. Thank you for the awareness article.

    Thanks for your comment, an aunt. It would probably more accurate for me to have written that the link between thimerosal and autism has not been scientifically and definitively proven, though many people still support the theory. -- LMA

    Posted by an aunt April 24, 09 04:43 PM
  1. My son has an allergy to peanuts and I have come to learn more about autism thanks to the overlap that exists between the online autism community and online food allergy community. Your post provides a helpful overview for those of us less familiar with day-to-day life with an autistic child. Thank you!

    Posted by Jennifer B April 25, 09 07:26 AM
  1. Barbara,
    Excellent informative reporting. Great resource for background info on Autism treatments.

    Posted by Bill April 25, 09 09:04 AM
  1. Whoops sorry Lylah I see now that it was written by you. Great writing!

    Thank you, Bill! -- LMA

    Posted by Bill April 25, 09 09:12 AM
  1. The only cure for autism is chelation to remove the mercury. All of the other garbage you discuss here only alleviates some symptoms in a small number of children.
    Mercury is the cause of autism and I have proved it by curing my son with chelation alone. Please stop giving out this horrible advice about diets and behavioral nonsense. You must address the cause, mercury, to help these children.

    Posted by John Best April 26, 09 02:48 PM
  1. I've been a fan of probiotics for some time for digestive and immune health, and have wondered about the connection between these friendly bacteria and Autism (my cousin is has been diagnosed with Autism). Thanks for the great info written in an informed and accessible way. It has spurred me to research this topic further.
    - Anna M. nutri-health.com

    Posted by Anna M April 27, 09 11:28 AM
  1. Celiac disease, which is a wheat allergy, can be tested with a blood test. Most adults with autistic spectrum disorders have none of these health problems that people are talking about that are affecting their children. This makes me very curious. I think the form of autism that they have is much different and has a different cause than those of us who were obviously genetically predisposed. Professionals are using the term "autisms" (notice the plural), to discriminate between the childhood illnesses and the rest of us who have ASDs but are perfectly healthy.

    Posted by Stephanie April 27, 09 02:42 PM
  1. It's terribly unprofessional and irresponsible to promote therapies/claim causes that have been disproven (vaccines -- studies on millions of children disprove this connection) or are not proven, but are costly, in terms of money and time, to implement (diets). While behavioral treatment is costly, as you stated, it have been proven. Families should not be encouraged to waste precious resources for little benefit.

    Posted by Jeni April 27, 09 03:47 PM
  1. John Best: really? Please add links to the scientifically reviewed articles showing that this is more than anecdotal.

    Posted by bv April 27, 09 04:47 PM
  1. John Best: Do you think if it was as easy as that my nephew would still be autistic? I think maybe you are not in touch with reality at all. I completely agree that Autism is attributed to more then just one thing. I think the information given is very accurate. Celiac is not a wheat allergy it is a gluten allergy which is a vital protein in wheat, barley, sorghum, and rye. I and many in my family including my nephew are all celiacs.

    Posted by KML April 28, 09 09:55 PM
  1. I found lots of interesting information on www.boston.com. The post was professionally written and I feel like the author has extensive knowledge in the subject. www.boston.com keep it that way.

    Posted by Payday Loans April 30, 09 06:30 PM
  1. John Best, autism is a lifelong disorder and it has never been demonstrated that mercury has anything to do with it. The symptoms of autism are not the same as mercury poisoning. Thimerosal has been absent from scheduled childhood vaccines since 2002, and the rate of autism has not plummeted, as would be expected if mercury had anything to do with autism.

    Posted by AutismNewsBeat May 2, 09 04:18 PM
  1. A quick perusal of John's blog (hatingautism.blogspot.com) with its tales of Illuminati cover ups, New World Order takes overs etc will illustrate exactly what you think KML - he is not in touch with reality.

    Posted by Kev May 2, 09 04:52 PM
  1. Dear KML Just FYI : Celiac disease is technically Not an Allergy. It is an Intolerance to gluten a protein in wheat, barley and rye. Oats are discouraged due to contaminination from the other 3 grains. (Oats if grown on a dedicated field,are believed to be okay.) The term allergy is part of a different immune response versus the response triggered with celiac disease. Someone may have a wheat allergy and not have celiac disease. This can be confusing to many. Also, sorghum is also gluten free. Check out celiac.com for good info.

    Posted by Lisa May 6, 09 05:12 PM
  1. John Best displays the qualities of a snake oil salesman.

    1. He says that he can cure Autism.
    2. He believes that the mainstream medical establishment is conspiring to keep people sick for profits.
    3. He harrasses opponents and considers them as conspirators because they oppose his claims and consider him a quack.

    I have a video on YouTube which might better explain ABA, and other Treatments on autism entitiled "Jenny McCarthy is wrong on autism."

    Here's the URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBTUANmJCC4

    Posted by AlexKenas July 22, 09 12:13 PM
  1. Long Live John Best!!!!!

    I owe you a beer next time.

    Elucidatus..

    Posted by Elucidatus Aurellious November 19, 09 05:49 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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