Autism series part IV: 4 ways to treat Autism with medication and natural supplements
To date there are no pharmacological treatments that treat the core symptoms of Autism Syndrome Disorder(ASD). However, there are several recommended medications and supplements that can be helpful in treating sub-symptoms of ASD such as anger, fatigue, restlessness and anxiety. Part IV of this series will discuss both the synthetic medication and natural supplement approaches to treatment.
An Autism metaphor
A mother recently shared the following metaphor with me…
“The Autism Spectrum is like the visual spectrum. The visual spectrum spans a wide range of vision acuity from being completely blind on one end to perfect vision on the other end. Some eyes require a lot of help with frequent doctor’s appointments and exams, other’s require simple correction in the form of glasses or contacts, and others need nothing more than an annual check up. Over time though, all vision changes and prescriptions and treatment must change.”
The same can be said for the Autism spectrum. ASD children have behaviors that span an even greater range of differences. Symptoms range from nearly unnoticeable to much more apparent challenging behaviors. As is the case with visual correction, some ASD children may require several visits to therapy, a speech pathologist, or an occupational therapist, while other parents are able to manage their child’s ASD symptoms by themselves at home with only the occasional visit to a doctor.
Much like eyes changing over time, ASD symptoms tend to change over time and new forms of correction are needed. Treatment plans should include an encompassing approach including behavioral modification techniques, food and diet, supplements and medications if needed.
If you have found an effective blend of medications and supplements that already works for your child, check out Part III of this series which covers behavioral therapy treatment options.
Finding the right combination of medications or the right dosage in medications can often feel like a juggling act. A few weeks ago, a couple of ASD parents shared the following words of wisdom in an interview with me.
“I didn’t want to do medication and I put it off for a long time. Afterwards I really felt like a bad parent because I looked at how much it calmed him down and I was able to reason with him, where before everything made him angry and I couldn’t reason with him.”
They went on to discuss the process of finding the right medication and dosage.
“Work with your physician until you find the right dosage for your child. It might take time, you have to be patient and compassionate. When we finally began Risperodone his temper tantrums decreased dramatically. ”
This tends to be a common experience with parents. Most physicians don’t hit the medication bulls eye on the first or even second try. Don’t lose hope. It’s normal.
Be patient and make sure you are an advocate for your child and your own happiness. Maintain constant communication with your physician until you find the right combination.
Risperodone is the most commonly prescribed synthetic medication for Autism due to the fact that it is the only FDA approved prescription for ASD, and is therefore prescribed to thousands of ASD children each year to treat behavioral symptoms.
A number of trial research studies have been completed in children with ASD and results indicate a reduction in behavioral symptoms including; anger, aggression, tantrums and self-harming.
The other good news is that Risperidone proved to be relatively free of the extra-pyramidal symptoms found in most anti-psychotic medications.
This is of significant importance to parents because extra-pyramidal symptoms include Dystonia (continuous spasms and muscle contractions), Akathisia (motor restlessness), and Parkinsonism (rigidity and tremors). Extrapyramidal symptoms and their associated side effects can be so difficult to manage in some children, that anti-psychotic medications are discontinued.
Side Effects: Results indicated that the use of Risperidone caused minimal side effects. However in some cases increased appetite and weight gain were reported.
Medications used to treat ASD sub-symptoms
- Clonidine (Kapvay) and guanfacine (Intuniv) are used to treat impulsive and aggressive behaviors in children with autism.
- Lithium (Lithobid) and anticonvulsants, such as carbamazepine and valproic acid are used to treat severely aggressive children and results indicate improved stability and decreased volatility in some children.
- Antipsychotic medicines, such as Haloperidol and Thioridazine target changing the effects of brain chemicals.
Side Effects: May include sleepiness, tremors, and weight gain. Their use is usually considered only after behavior management has failed to address the problem behaviors)
Myers SM, et al. (2007). American Academy of Pediatrics clinical report: Management of children with autism spectrum disorders., 120(5): 1162–1182.
In some cases synthetic medications are not prescribed by doctors or psychiatrists due to the specific nature of a child’s symptoms. Other times parents have an aversion to the synthetic nature of medications and their side effects. In these cases, supplements can be helpful in treating symptoms such as anger, restlessness and inattentiveness.
Carnosine is a natural supplement that parents have begun using during the past decade. In small clinical trials, children with autism given Carnosine showed statistically significant behavioral improvements and cognitive functioning. 500 mg 3 x a day has been the suggested prescribed dose for adults, this should be much lower for children based on their age, height, and weight.
Researchers at the Autism and Epilepsy Specialty Services in Lake Bluff, Illinois, investigated 31 children with autism in an 8-week, double-blinded study to determine if Carnosine would result in improved behavioral changes. The children received 800 mg of Carnosine a day and were compared with a group of children on placebo. After 8 weeks, children given Carnosine showed statistically significant improvements on several tests including an improvement in vocabulary and picture recognition. Parents have also reported success in improving short term memory, communication, less isolating and improved brain functioning. To read more about this specific Carnosine study click HERE.
Omega 3 fatty acid supplements have been found to decrease repetitive behaviors and hyperactivity in small clinical trials. Due to the nature of the small sample sizes, more research is needed. However, here is information on two separate small studies facilitated in the last 8 years. In 2007 a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled 6-week pilot trial investigating the effects of omega-3 fatty acids supplementation in 13 children (aged 5 to 17 years) with autism disorders were compared against a similar group on placebo, Results indicated a reduction of hyperactivity and stereotyped stimming behaviors. Biol Psychiatry. 2007.
In 2011, a pilot study funded by Autism Speaks enrolled 27 children, ages 3 to 8, diagnosed with ASD and hyperactivity. Some of the children were given 1.3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids each day, disguised in a pudding cup. The other children received the pudding without the supplement. Over the course of 12 weeks, those who received omega-3 fatty acids showed significantly greater improvements on validated measure of hyperactivity (an improvement of 2.7 vs. 0.3 points on the Aberrant Behavior Checklist).
Did you know?
That more than half of all children with ASD struggle with sleep disorders? – insomnia being the most common. Sleep issues likewise affect many adolescents and adults with autism. Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone that helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle. In studies funded by Autism speaks, melatonin was shown to improve sleep and reduce insomnia in children with ASD.
Dr. Beth L. Goodlin-Jones, of the Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders (M.I.N.D.) Institute at the University of California Davis Health System reported
“Melatonin can be considered a safe and effective pharmacologic treatment in addition to behavior therapies and sleep hygiene practices for the management of sleep problems in children with autistic spectrum disorder and fragile X syndrome.”
In a 4-week study, 18 children, ranging in age from 2 to 15 years, with ASD and/or fragile X syndrome were given either 3mg of Melatonin or placebo each night for 2 weeks. Results indicate that use of this natural hormone led to improvements in total night sleep durations, sleep latency times and sleep-onset times. (Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 2009)
For more information on supplements and their associated studies click HERE.
That’s a Wrap
Remember, much like our eyes change over time and adjusted correction is needed, ASD symptoms and behaviors change. and therefore medications and dosages must be reviewed as needed. A strong treatment approach should include input from parents, therapists, speech pathologists, occupational therapists and school teachers. A well-rounded approach may include behavioral therapies, proper nutrition, supplements and medications. Professionals and parents alike both report that an approach that combines the several of the treatments listed above creates happier children and a more stable home environment.
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