Parents of autistic kids have enough problems without quack cures

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An article appearing in the Los Angeles Times reveals the extremes to which desperate parents will go to help their autistic children. These all too often include alternative and unproven therapies, purveyed by charlatans seeking to exploit their legitimate fears and even guilt. According to Baltimore’s Kennedy Krieger Institute, which has the world’s largest autism database, 38,000 participating families with autistic children use an average of five treatments simultaneously (the highest individual use amassed an incredible 56 regimens). Aside from the emotional toll, such regimens can drain scarce financial resources: costs of $500 per month and more are not uncommon. The database contains a total of 381 different therapies reported by families. Unfortunately, the treatments supported by randomized, controlled scientific studies amount to far fewer and include Applied Behavior Analysis, melatonin therapy (to help those with disturbed sleep patterns) and certain speech, language and occupational treatments.

“[It’s] impractical and probably wrong to tell families not to do anything that's not evidence-based. But it is important to encourage families to have a rational approach to the things they try … so you don't wind up on 20-some interventions," says Dr. Paul Law, director of Kennedy Krieger's Interactive Autism Network and the father of an 18-year-old with autism.

Speaking as a mother of a child with special needs, ACSH’s Jody Manley points out that, “when parents find out their child has developmental abnormalities, they’ll look for anything that could possibly enable their kids to have a ‘normal’ life. I ended up spending lots of money and encountered some very ‘far out’ and potentially dangerous options when trying to help my own son. While my son is not autistic, it is clear to me that alternative therapies could still be very appealing to parents whose children are suffering from a variety of chronic illnesses, especially when there are very few mainstream options. But even if you’re careful, it can be very hard to tell what’s effective and what’s not.”

Among the alternative, unapproved therapies sought by parents is the androgen suppressor drug Lupron, alleged by Dr. Mark Geier to counteract what he considers to be an overproduction of testosterone in autistic children. Dr. Geier, whose medical license has been suspended, is also among the shrinking band of purveyors of the debunked vaccine-mercury theory of autism.