A new study finds that families often turn to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) for young children with autism and other developmental delays.
Researchers at the University of California-Davis MIND Institute found that the most frequent users of alternative approaches were families with higher levels of parental education and income.
“In our Northern California study population, it does not appear that families use complementary and alternative treatments due to the lack of availability of conventional services, as has been suggested by other research,” said Robin Hansen, M.D., chief of the Division of Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics in the UC Davis School of Medicine.
“Rather, they use the treatments in addition to conventional approaches.”
Alternative approaches include everything from mind-body medicine (meditation or prayer), homeopathic remedies, probiotics, and alternative diets to more invasive therapies such as vitamin B-12 injections, intravenous immunoglobulin or chelation therapy — some of which carry significant risks, according to the researchers.
Many of the approaches are designed to treat an array of symptoms that may not be directly associated with the child’s neurodevelopmental disorders, such as irritability, hyperactivity, gastrointestinal problems, and sleep disorders, according to the researchers.
The study included nearly 600 children between the ages of 2 and 5 with autism and developmental delays who were enrolled in the Childhood Autism Risk from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) study. Of the participants, 453 were diagnosed with autism and 125 were diagnosed with developmental delays.
CAM use was more common among children with autism — 40 percent — than children diagnosed with other types of developmental delays (30 percent), according to researchers.
Nearly 7 percent of children with autism were on a gluten-free/casein-free diet, particularly children with frequent gastrointestinal problems, the study found.
“We were pleased to find that most families utilizing CAM therapies were choosing ones that were low risk,” said Kathleen Angkustsiri, M.D., assistant professor of developmental and behavioral pediatrics and a study co-author.
However, a small but statistically significant number — about 4 percent — were found to use alternative treatments classified by the study as potentially unsafe, invasive or unproven, such as antifungal medications, chelation therapy and vitamin B-12 injections, the researchers pointed out.
“Our study suggests that pediatricians and other providers need to ask about CAM use in the context of providing care for children with autism and other developmental disorders, and take a more active role in helping families make decisions about treatment options based on available information related to potential benefits and risks,” said Roger Scott Akins, D.O., lead author and chairman of the Division of Neurodevelopmental Pediatrics at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, Va.
The study was published in the Journal of Behavioral and Developmental Pediatrics.