Reversing Autism Spectrum Disorders
Suzann Wang, ND
Conventional medicine’s perspective on autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is that it is an untreatable class of developmental disorders with unknown origin. Occasionally medications will be prescribed to manage hyperactive or digestive symptoms, but little is understood from a conventional medical perspective on how to treat, or even reverse, the worrisome peculiar symptoms of the autism spectrum. ASD is modifiable in its expression, and in many cases reversible in its progress. ASD diagnoses include autism, Asperger’s disorder, PDD (pervasive developmental disorder) and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). All children with ASD demonstrate problems with social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors or interests. Autism, for example, is a complex disease that is characterized by developmental delay, speech delay, problems with fine motor skills, poor eye contact, antisocial behavior, abnormal reactions to stimuli (very sensitive or lacking sensitivity) etc. The children may be very intelligent in some areas of their lives, but have difficulty interacting with the outside world. These children tend to live in a fog and frequently parents may initially be concerned with their ability to hear as they do not always respond to verbal cues.
Naturopathic physicians, with our understanding of the healing power of nature, our ability to identify and remove obstacles to cure and to ferret out the underlying cause of illness, can allow a powerful impact on the developmental health of thousands of children affected by this diagnosis and its relations. As primary care doctors in family practice we will all have the opportunity to diagnose and treat children with ASD. Prevalence of the diagnosis ranges from 2 to 6 per 1000 children in the United States. Unfortunately, the prevalence is steadily increasing with little understanding or agreement from experts as to cause.
In the practice of treating ASD children it is imperative to identify and address the underlying causes of the child’s symptoms. As each of us understands, there is always an underlying cause which creates imbalance in the body’s functioning, and often many body systems are affected. In the case of autistic children in general, the majority of the children have difficulty with detoxifying their system. The broad term of “detoxification” is used here because each case is unique and one will find that each particular individual’s weakness may lie in a different area of a child’s system. Autistic spectrum children are particularly sensitive to their environment and have a diminished capacity to manage the usual assault of external environmental toxins. This is why these children seem to be more susceptible to such things as exposure to heavy metals (mercury, lead, etc.), yeast overgrowth in the digestive system, food allergies and sensitivities, preservatives and artificial colorings in food.
The greatest impact a naturopathic physician treating children on the autistic spectrum can have is to both minimize exposures to neurotoxins and immune suppressors, as well as minimize body burden of chemicals or the like so that the body’s natural ability to heal itself can progress. As we remove the obstacles to cure, the body can bring about its own wondrous healings. As ASD patients present to you, having a good understanding of their health history as well as their mothers’ is extremely useful. Many clues to understanding where the child’s illness originates can be derived from having an in-depth understanding of the mother’s environmental exposure history. Many heavy metals and other toxins can cross the placenta and be transferred in cord blood and breast milk to the growing fetus.
Laboratory testing is extremely useful in honing treatment choices, as well as providing useful treatment progress information. One of the most beneficial tests to employ is the chelated (DMSA or DMPS, as EDTA does not adequately chelate mercury) urine heavy metal challenge. The use of heavy metal tests are often misunderstood by naturopathic physicians as well as medical doctors. Blood tests for lead and mercury rarely yield useful information because heavy metals are only transiently found in blood and a positive value indicates exposure that is high enough for conventional laboratory detection. A positive value will also indicate current, rather than past, exposure. It is important to remember that some children may have received high heavy metal exposure in utero. Rarely are ASD children currently exposed to these levels of mercury or lead, however, blood levels are useful as a way to rule out current and high levels of exposures to heavy metals. Hair analysis in ASD patients (and in my experience other patient populations) are virtually useless because ASD children have immense difficulty eliminating any metals through hair, and often tightly hold metals in key organs. This organ storage of metals explains the nervous, immune and endocrine effects that we see so prominently in ASD. Occasionally, even chelated urine toxic metal tests will give a false negative in this patient population due to factors such as metallothionein deficiency or other unknown reasons. In these cases, chelating the child for a period of time and retesting will usually offer a more useful picture of true heavy metal load. An in-depth understanding of environmental medicine is very useful in the treatment of ASD children, as many environmental factors contribute to the extent of the disease and isolation and removal of these factors (such as environmental exposure to various toxins) speed recovery.
Children with ASD have a genetic weakness in detoxification and genomic testing (Great Smokies Laboratories) and a liver function test may serve to identify any weaknesses that need to be addressed. In the case of genomic testing, both the ImmunoGenomic and DetoxiGenomic tests are of value. Recently Great Smokies Diagnostic Labortories has instituted a new NeuroGenomic test specifically designed for autistic children.
Naturopathic physicians clearly understand the importance of a healthy digestive system, and in autistic patients this is imperative. These children frequently experience extreme constipation or diarrhea, maldigestion, malabsorption, dysbiosis, leaky gut, etc. These conditions are easily identified during intake and occasional follow-up testing is indicated. The role of yeast in an ASD picture cannot be underestimated. Great Plains Laboratory in Kansas offers a combination Organic Acid and yeast culture and sensitivity test that is extremely valuable. Yeast presence is detected in 3 ways through urine toxic markers, a stool culture and a KOH microscopic. In this way, yeast markers have a reduced chance of being missed as in standard yeast microbiologies. Yeast presence, even in small amounts can wreak havoc on the temperament and agitation of the very sensitive ASD child. Food sensitivity (IgG), food allergy (IgE) and/or gluten/casein peptide testing are extremely useful in identifying the appropriate diet for these children. At minimum, if a gluten/casein peptide test is done as a screening test, this can assist the parent in understanding whether or not they need to take on the monumental task of either a gluten or casein free diet. Doing both gluten free and casein free diets in the absence of such information may do little to benefit the child and provide much unnecessary burden on the parents or caregivers. ASD children are unusually sensitive to taste, smell or texture of foods which makes employing any dietary change difficult. NAET (Nambudripad’s Allergy Elimination Technique) is particularly useful with these children to desensitize them to the offending foods. In addition to treating the sensitivities to gluten, casein and other food allergies/sensitivities, NAET is useful in treating for sensitivities or intolerances to yeast, mold, food coloring & additives, preservatives, formaldehyde, thimerisol, mercury, lead, etc. This greatly reduces behavioral regression after minute exposure to these substances.
ASD children benefit greatly from constitutional homeopathy as well as with homeopathic cellular drainage. The use of cellular drainage is imperative in an autism treatment protocol in our clinic, as the results have yet to be matched by any other single treatment approach. These drainage remedies have the ability to address the underlying cause that virtually all ASD children contend with, which is the issue of detoxification. Starting with extracellular detoxification and gradually moving into intracellular detoxification provides stunning results in these children. Patience is the key here as addressing one system at a time and helping to reeducate the organs as delineated by drainage protocols may take many months depending on the severity of the symptoms. Homeopathic drainage is not easily intuited, but a weekend seminar and practice provides excellent results. Unda’s “brain protocol” has been used quite successfully in providing subtle neurological, immunological and organ “reeducation” from a vibrational perspective.
All children, but ASD children in particular, will act out many of the emotional stressors and challenges that the parents or caregivers are facing. As ASD children do not transition well nor tolerate change well, any disharmony within the family unit must be taken into account for successful treatment to be had. For children under 7 years of age, the mother or mothering figure is the main connector to the child, and her emotional stability and ability to tolerate stress is particularly key in healing the ASD child. Occasionally, considering constitutional homeopathy for the mother or mothering figure will assist results with your child patients. Cranio-sacral therapy is a gentle, subtle and extremely effective energy treatment providing children with positive change quickly, especially in the areas of sleep, digestion and temperament.
ASD children commonly have vitamin deficiencies (B12, folic acid, B5, B6, vitamin C, or the fat soluble vitamins), mineral deficiencies or excesses (zinc, copper excess or deficiency, magnesium, selenium), antioxidant deficiencies(glutathione), essential fatty acid absorption problems, and amino acid deficiencies which can contribute to some of the symptoms of ASD and should be investigated. Copper excess can lead to aggressive or violent behavior and should be tested if these traits are found in your patients. Blood or urine amino acid, organic acid and vitamin/mineral status testing can assist the physician in identifying what may not otherwise be evident on observation, physical examination or history.
ASD children respond most profoundly if treatment is instituted prior to age 5 or if they are female. Prognosis with naturopathic treatment can be excellent provided that major contributing factors to symptoms are identified and addressed appropriately. The older the child is at the start of treatment, the slower the progression of improvements in speech and behavior. Parents of younger children (<7-8 years) can frequently anticipate transitions into mainstream classrooms within 9-12 months after instituting treatment. Many parents notice discernable differences in their child’s behavior, speech, eye contact, and disposition within 4-6 weeks of instituting treatment. No matter what the age of the child at the initiation of treatment, virtually all parents will notice improvements in the child’s ability to socialize, eye contact, fine motor skills and speech, along with decreases in stimulating behavior. The earlier ASD symptoms are detected, the better the chance for a child to develop and socialize normally. Instituting treatment aggressively in the first few months of diagnosis will prevent the frustration that parents will later encounter with an unruly or frustrated child who is unable to communicate their needs.
Naturopathic treatment coupled with occupational therapy and speech therapy can significantly accelerate the progress of the child’s speech, fine and gross motor skills. ASD is a very modifiable disease and although many children may not grow up “normal” there are many ASD children who are able to mainstream into normal schooling if the parents are dedicated and the physician is methodical in identifying and planning treatment after the identifying obstacles to cure and underlying causes. As naturopathic physicians we are uniquely poised to assist ASD and similarly diagnosed children because of our ability to see the big picture and to always keep in mind the mental, emotional and physical aspects of illness and healing.
Suzann Wang, ND is a naturopathic physician and alumnus of Bastyr University and has clinics in Palo Alto and Sausalito, California. Her practice specializes in the treatment and management of autistic spectrum children and psychiatric illnesses in adults. Dr. Wang consults on autistic cases across the United States helping children recover from this developmental disorder.