Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content
Health Issues

Complementary & Alternative Therapies for Autism

By: Robin K. Blitz, MD, FAAP

If you have a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you may be considering integrative, complementary or alternative health therapies. These are often referred to as CAM (complementary and alternative medicine). Maybe you're looking for extra help with your child's communication or behavior. Or you want to find some relief for their sleep problems.

If you're interested in CAM approaches, you're certainly not alone. Studies show that up to 95% of kids with ASD have tried some form of CAM. But many parents and caregivers say they don't tell their child's doctor about the CAM options they've used.

Remember, it's important to discuss all aspects of your child's supports and services with your pediatrician. This includes therapies that seem to be "natural."

Here's more information to help you navigate CAM.

What is complementary & alternative medicine (CAM)?

Integrative, alternative and complementary therapies all fall under the CAM umbrella. CAM is any complementary health approach that falls outside of traditional medical care.

Examples include:

  • Yoga

  • Massage

  • Herbal remedies

  • Mindfulness

  • Biological treatments such as melatonin, homeopathy, chelation or antifungals

  • Special diets or supplements

  • Acupuncture

  • Hyperbaric oxygen

Why do parents use CAM?

Kids with autism spectrum disorder are at a higher risk of having other medical issues too, such as:

  • Chronic constipation

  • Diarrhea

  • Feeding disorders

  • Abdominal pain

  • Celiac disease

  • Gastroesophageal reflux

  • Seizures

  • Sleep problems

  • Behavioral and psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, aggression and self-injurious behaviors

These problems are often what parents are trying to address by using CAM.

Is CAM right for my child?

Few studies have been done on the benefits and safety of CAM for children with ASD. Sometimes, these treatments can interact with medication that your child has been prescribed. (Seizure medications are one example.)

These types of therapies are usually not covered by insurance, so they can be expensive. Herbal supplements are also not regulated for safety by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) like prescription medicine is.

What to consider with CAM

Here are some important things to keep in mind about CAM for your child with ASD:

  • Be careful with "natural" items. Remember, just because something is labeled as "natural" or "organic" doesn't mean it's harmless. For example, natural supplements can interfere with other medications. They can also cause their own side effects. Taking too much of a supplement can be dangerous too.

  • Be wary of biological treatments. This includes treatments such as hyperbaric oxygen secretin (a gastrointestinal hormone), chelation therapies and antifungals. They may claim to help kids with ASD improve their communication or reduce interfering behaviors. But these treatments are not scientifically proven to help. In fact, they can be hazardous.

  • Don't jump on the nutrition bandwagon. Special diets and vitamin supplements may be popular. But that doesn't mean that they're safe or necessary. There may be a medical reason your child needs a special diet or vitamins. If not, it's best to discuss their nutrition with their doctor.

  • Treat music therapy and equine-assisted therapy as add-ons. Recreational activities like music and horseback riding may be fun for your child. But remember that right now, scientific evidence doesn't support these activities for treating the core symptoms of ASD.

  • Consider melatonin for sleep issues. Melatonin may be helpful for some kids with ASD who struggle with sleep. Be sure to talk to your pediatrician before giving your child melatonin.

  • Never replace regular treatments with CAM options. For example, using supplements instead of prescription medication can be extremely dangerous. It can even be deadly.

There is also no clear evidence that the following CAM therapies help kids with ASD:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids

  • Acupuncture

  • Modified mindfulness-based therapy

  • Qigong massage and other massage therapies

  • Oxytocin (the hormone)

This means it's not safe to use any of these in place of your child's usual doctor-approved treatments.

Talk with your pediatrician

Remember, it's important to discuss every part of your child's care with your pediatrician. This includes any CAM interventions that you're interested in. It's your pediatrician's job to make sure your child is healthy and safe.

That way, you can team with your doctor to target symptoms you want to address. Your doctor can find appropriate supports and services for these. They can also help you avoid any harmful or unproven therapy options.

More information

About Dr. Blitz

Robin K. Blitz, MD, FAAP is a board-certified developmental pediatrician and a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. For 30 years, Dr. Blitz provided care for children with special health care needs, educated providers, students and families and directed patient-centered programs such as the Down syndrome clinic at Phoenix Children’s Hospital prior to joining UnitedHealthcare (UHC). She serves as medical director with the Special Needs Initiative (SNI)/Family Engagement Center of UHC. Dr. Blitz has served in organizations and committees, locally and nationally, including the the AAP Council on Children with Disabilities and Autism Subcommittee, the Bureau of Indian Education Advisory Board for Exceptional Children, among others.

Last Updated
American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright © 2022)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
Follow Us