Among the myriad treatments available to individuals with autism spectrum disorders today, alternative therapies have gained a great deal of attention in recent years. According to a 2006 study, about 50 percent of children with autism in the United States may receive some form of complementary and/or alternative medicine.
Alternative therapy generally refers to interventions or treatments that differ from and are used instead of (or along with) conventional treatments like physical therapy. Examples include music therapy, hippotherapy, and nutritional therapies. Alternative therapies have emerged as part of a growing assortment of treatments used with individuals across the autism spectrum. However, parents must be aware that effectiveness has often not been established for a particular intervention. Focus primarily on evidence-based treatments, and be wary of misinformation or claims that certain methods lead to drastic improvements. Many families who have chosen to use alternative therapies see them as fun, motivational, and potentially helpful treatment approaches for their child, even though little scientific evidence exists on the efficacy of treatments such as those briefly described below.
Treatment Types with Limited Scientific Evidence
Some popular, non-evidence-based treatments available to children with ASD include:
Treatments include: horseback riding, also referred to as hippotherapy, which proponents claim draws on the multidimensional movement of the horse to help organize sensory input; and dolphin/dog/cat/bird-assisted therapy, a mode of treatment that purports to improve a child’s cognitive skills by “relaxing” their brain.
A complementary therapy that uses the artistic techniques of drawing, painting and modeling to reportedly help individuals enhance their cognitive, communication, and social/emotional skills through tactile and sensory stimulation.
A series of auditory treatments designed to normalize auditory processes in individuals who, it is hypothesized, experience distortions in hearing or who may be hypersensitive to sounds.
A non-invasive massage technique based on a belief in a person’s innate ability to heal themselves through the use of specific massage techniques focused on the head and spine. Proponents claim this then allows for the release of tension and the dissolution of energy blocks.
DIR/Floortime (developmental, individual-difference, relationship-based approach) is a developmental intervention focusing on relationships to improve social, emotional, and intellectual capacities. DIR/Floortime is a popular intervention commonly used with other therapies.
Often used to help children with motor, speech, and fluency problems, this kind of therapy uses music to increase behavioral, social, psychological, communicative, physical, sensory-motor, and/or cognitive functioning.
A therapy that introduces the elements of play and develops and extends the variety of play activities intended to increase a child’s cognitive abilities, language development and social skills.
This prompting technique is used by some parents or educators to help individuals with limited verbal skills communicate through pointing or writing. While the method has some strong proponents, many professionals do not recommend the practice as it has not been scientifically proven. The method may be subject to unconscious bias from facilitators.
Treatments include the “Irlen” Method which, according to supporters, addresses a type of visual-perceptual processing problem related to sensitivity to lights, glare, patterns, colors, and contrast through the use of colored filters worn as glasses to reduce or eliminate perceptual sensitivity and sensory overload.