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Autism Spectrum Disorder: Complementary Therapies for a Growing Problem

Autism Spectrum Disorder: Complementary Therapies for a Growing Problem

Dec 12, 2021

By Tim Culbert, MD

Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the United States has risen over the last four decades. Two recent studies (one in Pediatrics and the other in JAMA Pediatrics) found that rates continue to grow, reporting that about 1 in every 40 children are diagnosed with ASD.

Why are so many more kids being diagnosed with ASD? Two key possibilities:

  • There’s no real rise in the number of children with ASD. Instead, there’s more awareness of autism, better diagnostic tools, and a changing definition of ASD. Head to the bottom of this post for some extras about the history and evolution of autism.
  • There is an actual rise in ASD prevalence. This could be related to increased exposure of environmental toxins both in the womb and out. This exposure could be causing negative interactions with certain genetic tendencies.

Another big problem: 30% of children with ASD are not receiving appropriate treatments. Treatments for ASD include medications, behavioral therapies, educational supports, speech/language therapy, and newer biomedical approaches addressing modulation of the immune system and problems with the GI tract (including the gut microbiome- AKA all those bacteria living in the gut).

The good news is that complementary/integrative therapies can help folks diagnosed with ASD and can be made accessible outside of conventional treatment settings. In fact, up to 90% of families of children with ASD report using complementary/alternative therapies (sources: 1, 2).

A Quick History of Autism

The term autism was first used in the early 1900’s when referring to certain schizophrenic behaviors. Leo Kanner then used the term in his research with individuals who displayed social/emotional limitations and withdrawn behaviors (he labeled these individuals early infantile autism). Hans Asperger then used the term “Asperger’s Syndrome” in his work with people displaying similar traits.

In 1980, Autism was added to the DSM-III. Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD, NOS) and Asperger’s Syndrome were added to the DSM-IV in 1994. The DSM V then eliminated the PDD and Asperger’s items, refined diagnostic criteria, and called the unified category “Autism Spectrum Disorder” (ASD) while identifying levels of severity.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

ASD is an umbrella term that covers a variety of developmental and neurological issues. The issues fall into two main categories:

  1. Narrow focus of interests and repetitive behaviors.
  2. Atypical social interactions.

Children with ASD also act in ways that seem unusual or have interests that aren’t typical. Some examples include:

  • Repetitive behaviors (e.g., hand-flapping, rocking, jumping, or twirling).
  • Constant moving or pacing and hyperactivity.
  • Fixations on certain activities or objects.
  • Specific routines or rituals that cause upset when changed.
  • Extreme sensitivity to touch, light, and sound.
  • Not taking part in imaginative play or imitating others’ behaviors.
  • Fussy eating habits.
  • Lack of coordination or clumsiness.
  • Aggressive behavior with self and others.

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