Alternative and Complementary Treatments for Children with Autism

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • Approximately 1 in every 88 children are somewhere on the autism spectrum. Symptoms range from mild to severe and include communication difficulties, social challenges and repetitive actions. Many children with autism have additional medical problems such as gastrointestinal problems , sensory processing difficulties, seizure disorders and sleep problems. There is no treatment or cure for autism. Behavioral interventions are commonly used. Other symptoms are treated individually - for example, gastrointestinal issues might be treated with medication or diet.

    The lack of treatment options has many parents frustrated. While research is ongoing, there is not yet any definitive causes or one overall treatment to help lessen symptoms. Part of the problem is that there autism doesn’t look the same in each child. Some may have more severe and debilitating symptoms, for others autism symptoms are barely noticeable by those outside the family. But, no matter where a child falls on the spectrum, there are everyday challenges to be faced.

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    A recent study showed that as many as 40 percent of parents are using some type of alternative or complementary treatment, the most common being supplements or special diets. Many of the treatments were considered complementary, which means they are used alongside other traditional treatments, such as behavioral therapy. Other treatments, however, were considered unsafe or unfounded in science and researchers are concerned that parents don’t fully understand the potential risks and benefits of these types of treatments.


    AutismSpeaks, a national advocacy organization, lists several types of complementary supplements that are considered relatively safe:

    Melatonin - a naturally occurring hormone which, in supplement form, may help a child get to sleep

    Omega 3 Fatty Acids - some small studies have shown that this supplement, naturally found in fish and nuts, may reduce some autism symptoms such as repetitive behavior, social difficulties and hyperactivity

    Multivitamins - Because of sensory processing problems, some children with autism are picky eaters and lack certain nutrients. Taking a multivitamin is considered safe when taken in the proper doses.

    Injections of B12 - One small study showed improvement in symptoms of autism with injections of B12, however, larger studies need to be conducted and this is considered medically unproven.

    Probiotics - These supplements may help to reduce some of the gastrointestinal issues children with autism face.

    Even with these types of supplements, researchers urge caution. Supplements are not regulated by the FDA and the quality of supplements can vary between manufacturers. There is also not a consensus on the dosage of supplements. Talk to your child’s doctor before trying any supplements.


    The most common diets used by parents of children with autism are the gluten free and casein free diets - or a combination of both. These diets eliminate proteins from wheat and dairy. Some parents indicate that behaviors improved on these diets, while others did not notice any significant changes.

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    While these diets are considered relatively safe, you should talk with your doctor or a nutritionist to make sure your child is still receiving the proper nutrients.

    Other Treatments

    Some parents are trying other, unproven or questionable treatments such as using antifungal treatments to treat yeast infections or chelation treatment to remove metals from the body. It is important to talk to your doctor before trying any of these treatments. Alternative treatments, while “natural” are not necessarily safe.


    “Autism and Alternative Medicine: Getting Real About the Benefits and Risks,” 2014, Jan 11, Alexandra Sifferlin,

Published On: January 20, 2014