Autism’s Alternative Treatments

January 4, 2010

It’s about time we wrote an update on all the autism myths swarming around and confusing parents. There seems to be a lull in the antivaccine war drums, but I wouldn’t doubt that another Hydra head will spring up to replace others that have been chopped down.  Indeed, we maybe seeing the next wave of tactics by vaccine haters with a new libel suit against Dr. Paul Offit, a man who has been vilified by his anti-science opponents for (deservedly) making $5 million as a co-inventor of the vaccine for rotavirus. Go to Science-Based Medicine to see the full scoop on Offit’s legal challenge.

So, most of us know what the antivaccine army opposes, but let’s take a look at what they recommend.

What is Lupron? Lupron is a hormone therapy meant to reduce excess testosterone. It’s been used to chemically castrate sex offenders. Mark and David Geier are the scientists who have been promoting this treatment, despite the fact that they are not experts in endocrinology or autism. Lupron has been used to treat precocious puberty and to chemically neuter sex offenders. The amount of Lupron recommended by the Geiers is ten times greater than the dose recommended for precocious puberty, and essentially castrates autistic boys with “masturbation problems”.

There have not been trials of this procedure, so any parent using this method is willfully subjecting their children to a treatment with unknown risks. These $5000 Lupron treatments come in the form of intramuscular injections. It seems that the Geiers themselves are the folks who profit from the injections, and the only evidence behind their recommendation for Lupron is their own poorly done studies. Read more at The Chicago Tribune.

What is chelation? Chelation is the use of untested industrial agents added to creams or pills to draw heavy metals from the body. Some parents use chelation on their autistic children, even when there’s no evidence of higher metal toxicity. Children with autism are given chelating agents to release metals that have been bonded to tissue. Their urine is then tested for heavy metal toxicity, but the results are compared on a scale that was not meant to include results from chelated individuals. Which means that parents are gambling on a risky, potentially dangerous procedure without two important control groups: one to see whether children without autism also have high metal toxicity levels after chelation, and another to see whether non-chelated children report similar levels of progress.

This whole idea that autistic kids are contaminated with toxic levels of metal is based on the accusation that heavy-metals in vaccines stimulate autism, but there has never been any evidence for such an association (mercury is no longer in vaccines and aluminum is a minuscule ingredient). See more at The Los Angeles Times.

The Autism Diet?

I’ve said it before, but now it’s even more official. MSNBC reports that 25 experts have come to a consensus that there is no proof that children with autism are more prone to digestive problems or that gluten/casein-free diets are effective in “curing” (or even helping) symptoms of autism. In fact, the panel, which was funded by The Autism Society and other autism groups, warned pediatricians to watch for malnutrition in children with autism because of the limitations of wheat-free and dairy-free diets.

The idea that gut issues and autism had a connection to the MMR vaccine was, by all accounts, manufactured by Dr. Andrew Wakefield – his study on 12 autistic children has long since been debunked. Yet, Wakefield defiantly stampedes forward at Florida’s Thoughtful House, where he continues to treat autism with an income of a quarter million dollars per year, despite the lack of support from his scientific peers. How nice for the man who revived measles from the dead!

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That’s all well and good, I suppose, but I don’t take particular glee in these news stories. There are people in my life who have placed their bets on these expensive treatments. I empathize that they want answers, they want cures, and that they’ll try anything that might have a chance of working. Having a child on the spectrum is an incredible frustration for some people, one that I will likely never understand. Many parents have said that my right to speak on this topic should be revoked because I can’t possibly relate to their struggles. Regardless of those objections, I will report on the evidence as indicated in the legitimate scientific publications and mainstream media.

I will never say that there’s no possibility that some children with autism have high testosterone, are intoxicated with heavy metals, or are unable to digest wheat and dairy. What I will say is that there’s no evidence that these symptoms occur more in children with autism than they do in children without autism. In addition, the treatments for each supposed cause of autism are similarly unproven, and each of these treatments are potentially dangerous to human homeostasis.

Let’s hope that we can come up with a true cure and a definitive cause for autism in the near future.


Autism: Gluten and Casein Diets

July 7, 2009

My wife and daughters recently visited a cousin who may be on the autism spectrum. The cousin is being seen by early interventionists (incidentally, my mother’s profession), but has yet to be officially assessed.

I was distressed to hear that, despite the fact that this cousin has yet to be diagnosed, my sister-in-law has placed him on a gluten and casein free diet, an unnecessary restriction that is not based on proper scientific evidence. Gluten is a starch protein ingredient in wheat, rye, and barley and casein is a protein ingredient in dairy. Restricting both sources of food can be a challenging, expensive waste of time. More importantly, the diet eliminates important sources of nutrients that must be unnaturally replaced; autistic children on these diets were twice as likely as control group to have weakened bone structure.

I don’t blame any parent for doing whatever it takes to raise a healthy normal child, especially in the light of anecdotes of cures from Jenny McCarthy and her flock of followers. The truth is that there is, as of yet, no cure for autism. Parents who listen to Jenny are placing faith in her claims – she is not basing her advocacy on the facts. The evidence is poor for the efficacy of dietary restrictions for the treatment autism. It’s difficult to design a well-controlled double blind study for this diet, but the one study that met those qualifications, showed no difference between the diet restricted group and the control group.

Ms. McCarthy, whose child may actually have Landau Kleffner Syndrome (not autism), has thrown every possible treatment she can find at her son, including psychic healers. Jenny once claimed that her son Evan was a psychic indigo child (perhaps ready to be enrolled in Professor X’s academy for mutants?). Jenny has a disdain for modern medicine as proven by her crusade against vaccines and her tirades against the doctors who faltered in her son’s diagnosis.

The probable truth is that Jenny and her friends are wrong. Parents who report improvements in their children are probably undergoing confirmation bias, where they select what seems to be progress and ignore behavior that stays the same. Autism can be regressive depending on the age, but most often it’s not – parents will report improvements as their autistic child undergoes speech and behavior therapy. These advancements will happen whether the child is on a restrictive diet or not. Confirmation bias is described in this example of a believer-turned-skeptic, who suddenly reversed his autistic child’s gluten and casein restricted diet without noticing any change in his behavior.

I’m concerned for my nephew. I really hope he is not on the spectrum. Mostly, I hope that my extended family doesn’t fall too deep down the slippery slope of autism quackery because I would be extremely bothered if my nephew were to undergo chelation therapy with a DAN doctor.  You can bet that I’ll be finding a good way to send them the above links; hopefully, without insulting them.

Again, it’s not my place to judge a family’s decisions because I will probably never know their frustration, but in the end, the evidence indicates that restricting casein and gluten will not help an autistic child, and may actually harm him.  I’ll save the anecdotes for the author of “anecdotes-based parenting”. For me and the science-based community, the diet is extreme, possibly dangerous, and lacks efficacy: that’s more than enough reason to speak up and hope that I’m heard.

Update: 1/4/2010 – my nephew is no longer on the restricted diet. There was no change in progress when he returned to a typical diet.


Expert Advice: Eat Healthy – Get Pregnant!

October 24, 2008

A recent episode of the Scientific American podcast featured an interesting interview with Harvard epidemiologist Walter Willett, who is chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.  He talked about his book Fertility Diet which is based on a recent study by co-author Dr. Jorge Chavarro that connects a good healthy diet to optimal fertility.   Dr. Chavarro looked at the connection between insulan resistance in polycystic ovarian syndrome and dietary factors, and that led to the current research that indicates infertility can be linked to poor diet.

Willett’s recommendations for fertility might seem obvious because the advice adds up to typical dietary recommendations.  The only suggestion that might throw you off would be the first one.  These are the suggestions for diet adjustments during the pursuit of conception:

  • High Fat Dairy (for the estrogen)
  • Low Trans Fats
  • Whole Grain High Fiber Carbohydrates
  • Healthy plant protein (and certain meats including chicken and fish)
  • Multi-Vitamins

This is all good information because many women who are trying to get pregnant need a solid foundation of good nutrition before they spend so much money and effort pursuing medical technology to achieve pregnancy.  Using this recommended diet could possibly drop the risk of infertility by 80% (in people who don’t typically eat a healthy diet).

For more information, check out the book Fertility Diet by Willett and Chavarro.  Also, there was a recent episode of Frontline featuring Willett.


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