Promising Approaches To Autism: What the Experts Are Finding

By Bernard Rimland
Issue 100, May/June 2001

girl looking out windowThe desire to find and treat the cause of autism was the reason I founded the Autism Research Institute, a nonprofit research and information center, in 1967. In 1995, pediatrician Sidney Baker, chemist Jon Pangborn, and I gathered 30 scientists and physicians with special expertise in autism research and treatment at our first Defeat Autism Now! (DAN!) conference. The group, comprised of experts from the fields of psychiatry, neurology, immunology, allergy, biochemistry, genetics, and gastroenterology, came to a consensus: In genetically susceptible individuals, immunological and/or gastrointestinal dysfunction, as well as viral or fungal infections and metabolic imbalances, interact in intricate but plausible ways to bring about autism.

We began to explore why certain interventions help and why others seem promising. Sidney Baker and Jon Pangborn compiled the recommendations of the group in a Clinical Options Manual, which provides flow charts and discussion of clinical tests that are useful in identifying many of the biological problems that are at the roots of autism. The speakers at our fifth DAN! conference held in November 1999 covered a wide range of treatment approaches. Many are simple, safe, easily implemented, and most do not require a prescription. Some of the most promising approaches follow.

Self-Help And Over-the-counter Treatments
Megadose vitamin B-6 (and magnesium). Eighteen studies published between 1965 and 1996 by researchers in six countries (11 of the studies were double-blind placebo control experiments) have established beyond any reasonable doubt that vitamin B-6/magnesium treatment can significantly help about half of all autistic children and adults. No major harmful effects have been noted, in any case.1, 2, 3 Some studies of autistic and autistic-like children show markedly lower levels of magnesium, calcium, copper, manganese, chromium, and other trace elements, possibly a result of poor digestion; hair analysis may be a useful diagnostic tool for autism, indicating poor absorption of minerals.4

Dimethylglycine (DMG). Formerly called vitamin B-15, DMG is, like vitamin B-6, an extraordinarily safe nonprescription nutrient that has proven to bring about significant improvement in about half of all autistic children and adults who try it. Like B-6 and magnesium, DMG often brings about marked improvement in speech, learning, attention span, and reduces many behavioral symptoms of autism.

There are a number of other over-the-counter supplements (not drugs) that show significant, although not curative, efficacy. Although the following supplements are immeasurably safer than any drug, parents should use them under the guidance of a nutritional consultant, or a nutritionally informed physician: zinc, calcium, folic acid, vitamin A, and coenzyme Q10 all have potential value in the treatment of autism. In addition, researchers are currently investigating others that hold promise.

Special diets. The behavioral problems of many autistic children are due to disorders of digestion, possibly of genetic or infectious origin. Often referred to as “food allergies,” these difficulties are not true allergies but rather food intolerances, or brain allergies, if you will. The biggest culprits are the casein in dairy products and the gluten or gliadin in wheat, oats, and barley. Gluten- or casein-free diets, long the prescribed solution, are challenging regimens, but there now exist several good books that provide valuable guidance. (See Resources). At the 1999 DAN! conference, Jon Pangborn gave the first report on the effectiveness of a newly developed digestive enzyme (SerenAid) that helps the body break down and digest the peptides from gluten and casein in the way that nonautistic people do. The preliminary findings are quite promising.

Antiyeast treatments. The overuse of antibiotics, commonly prescribed for ear infections, seems to underlie many cases of autism. Intended to kill the viruses causing the ear infections, the antibiotics instead kill the helpful microorganisms that inhabit our intestinal tracts. In these instances, the harmful yeast Candida albicans quickly occupies the space vacated by the beneficial organisms, and `begins producing alcohol-like toxins that impair brain function. In many cases, these toxins bring about symptoms of autism. Doctors can treat the yeast with antifungal drugs, but finding cooperative physicians can be difficult, given the prevalent reliance on antibiotics by many in the medical profession. There are, however, some yeast remedies that are not harmful.

Treatments Requiring a Physician
In her most recent book Confronting Autism, Victoria Beck describes a tremendously exciting finding in autism treatment: secretin, a digestive enzyme discovered in 1901. Secretin has helped many children, including Victoria’s son, Parker. He quickly began to improve in every area: language, awareness, and behavior, and his diarrhea stopped. How secretin worked for him is still a mystery, but he did get much better. Secretin may not be the “miracle cure,” but its efficacy is certainly worth further research; several studies are underway at nearly a dozen medical centers to formally evaluate the enzyme for use in autism treatment. Thus far, the results seem promising. The first clinical trials used single doses of secretin to establish its safety; next will be multiple-dose trials to establish its efficacy. Secretin is quite scarce right now, but the medical industry is looking at increasing its production.

Experimental evaluations of other biomedical treatments for autism are also in the works, including the use of intravenous gamma globulin (IVIG) and certain orally administered supplements, known as transfer factors, designed to enhance immune function.

Although the available treatments will help many autistic children, they will in some instances only bring about a partial recovery. Other children will not respond to these treatments at all. It is, therefore, important for families to work with a physician who uses the fine-grained diagnostic methods described in the DAN! Clinical Options Manual. These include testing for a range of possible causes for autism, such as problems with organic acids, amino-acid metabolism, heavy metal intoxication, and immune system dysfunction. The Autism Research Institute is sponsoring the computerized analysis of the DAN! Biomedical Database to increase our understanding of the biology of autism, and is helping train medical practitioners interested in following this protocol. The Clinical Options Manual also provides lists of clinical laboratories that conduct these tests.

Creating and implementing a treatment program for autism is not easy, but–as more and more parents are reporting–it can be done. It is, in any case, certainly worthwhile to try. The Autism Research Institute can refer families to a number of books and other publications that will provide valuable guidance for these clinical options. The diligence and hard work of many parents, and the efforts of a number of open-minded, innovative physicians, have transformed autism from a hopeless disorder to a frequently treatable condition.

NOTES
1. O. Lovaas, “Behavioral Treatment and Normal Educational and Intellectual Functioning in Young Autistic Children,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 55: 3-9.

2. C. Barthelemy et al., “Behavioral and Biological Effects of Oral Magnesium, Vitamin B6, and Combined Magnesium B6 Administration in Autistic Children,” Magnesium Bulletin 3 (1981): 150-153.

3. J. Martineau et al., “Vitamin B6, Magnesium and Combined B6-Mg: Therapeutic Effects in Childhood Autism,” Biological Psychiatry 20 (1985): 467-468.

4. B. Rimland et al., “The Effects of High Doses of Vitamin B6 on Autistic Children: A Double-Blind Crossover Study,” American Journal of Psychiatry 135 (1978): 472-475.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Organizations and On-line Resources
Autism Research Institute www.autism.com/ari, fax: 619-563-6840, at 4182 Adams Street, San Diego, CA 92116.

Autism Society of America www.autism-society.org, 800-3AUTISM

Autism Spectrum www.autism-spectrum, an on-line community of parents, caregivers, and people living with autism in their lives.

Families for Early Autism Treatment www.feat.org. To receive their Feat Daily Online Newsletter, go to www.feat.org/FEATNews.

The National Vaccine Information Center www.909SHOT.com. 800-909-SHOT

Books
*Baker, Sidney M., and Jon Pangborn. Biomedical Assessment Options: The Defeat Autism Now! (DAN!) Manual. Autism Research Institute, 1999.

*Beck, Victoria. Confronting Autism: A Practical Guide to Hope, Knowledge, and Empowerment. New Destiny Press, 1999.

Gerlach, Elizabeth King. Just This Side of Normal: Glimpses into Life with Autism. Four Leaf Press, 1999.

_________. Autism Treatment Guide. Four Leaf Press, 1998.

Hamilton, Lynn M. Facing Autism: Giving Parents Reasons for Hope and Guidance for Help. Water Brook Press, 2000.

Lewis, Lisa. Special Diets for Special Kids: Implementing a Diet to Improve the Lives of Children with Autism and Related Disorders. Future Horizons, 1998.

Semon, Bruce, and Lori Kornblum. Feast without Yeast: Four Stages to Better Health. Wisconsin Institute of Nutrition, 1998.

Seroussi, Karyn. Unraveling the Mystery of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorder. Simon and Schuster, 2000.

Shaw, William, ed. Biological Treatments for Autism and PDD. Sunflower Publications, 1998.

*Available through the Autism Research Institute. For a publication list, write them at 4182 Adams Street, San Diego, CA 92116.

Research psychologist Bernard Rimland founded the Autism Research Institute in 1967 and is its director. He is also the founder of the Autism Society of America and the editor of the Autism Research Review International and the prize-winning book Infantile Autism: The Syndrome and Its Implications for a Neural Theory of Behavior. In addition, he served as chief technical consultant on autism for the film Rain Man. He lives in San Diego, California, with his wife, Gloria, and is the father of three adult children, Helen, Paul, and Mark.

Photo by Lloyd Wolf.

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