March 9, 2019

medicineAdvances in our collected knowledge about autism have been painfully slow down the years. Science has come to realise that autism is a spectral condition, presents with huge variability in terms of symptoms and their variable effect on daily living and quality of life and can often place a person at heightened risk of various comorbid conditions. Knowledge about the underlying genetic or biological processes which bring about a diagnosis of autism however, and the ways and means these might be affected, remains limited. The translation of such knowledge into practical medical interventions (i.e. medicines) aimed at reducing the more disabling aspects of the condition is also still very much a work in progress.

Given such circumstances, coupled with the rise and rise of the Internet age, it is little surprise that there is a growing interest in the use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) in relation to autism. CAM is defined as including treatments which fall outside of mainstream or conventional medicine. The paper by Akins and colleagues* reiterates previous research in this area with their suggestion that up to a third of children with autism are using some form of CAM aiming to moderate their symptoms.

Based on data derived from the CHARGE (Childhood Autism Risk from Genetics and the Environment) initiative based at the University of California, Davis, researchers looked at both conventional medicine and CAM use based on parental reports for children with autism and those diagnosed with developmental delay. Parents reported using a variety of interventions labelled under CAM with their children including nutritional supplements such as vitamins and minerals and dietary restrictions such as regimes devoid of foods containing gluten (the primary protein found in certain cereal crops) and casein (the protein found in mammalian milk and other dairy sources). Researchers categorised these interventions as low risk as a function of their relative safety profile based on current evidence. Several other forms of CAM were also reported including the use of vitamin B12 injections and chelating agents which were classified as unproven, invasive or potentially unsafe.

The authors also sought to describe some of the factors which might indicate whether or not parents of children with autism are more or less likely to use CAM. They reported a possible influence of ethnicity, parental educational level and service use level as possibly being related; indicating that decisions to use CAM may link into various factors.

They conclude that further investigations are required looking at how medical physicians can further inform and support parents of children with autism on the decision to use CAM. That also the autism research agenda should be putting further resources into examining elements of CAM use in cases of autism is also implied.


* Akins RO. et al. Utilization Patterns of Conventional and Complementary/Alternative Treatments in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Developmental Disabilities in a Population-Based Study. J Dev Behav Ped. 2014; 35: 1-10.

Further commentary on this study can be found at:

About the author 

Paul Whiteley Ph.D.

Researcher based in North East England. An academic background in psychology with a special interest in developmental psychology focused specifically on the autism spectrum and related conditions. Postgraduate degrees based on research examining the safety and efficacy of a gluten- and casein-free (GFCF) diet applied to autism and the potential importance of various comorbidity to the health and wellbeing of those on the autism spectrum, with a continuing research interest in these areas. Keen blogger and amateur science writer (but no formal qualifications in these areas). Science is based on probability.

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