Most alternative therapies for treating autism show inconclusive benefits

September 27, 2017 by David Olmos, University of California, Los Angeles
Dr. Shafali Jeste has no tolerance for those who would promote therapies for treating autism that lack any scientific basis. Credit: University of California, Los Angeles

Dr. Shafali Jeste knows well the desperation of a parent seeking a cure for their child with autism spectrum disorder. As a clinician who both researches the causes of the disorder and treats children with autism, Jeste, UCLA associate professor of psychiatry, neurology and pediatrics and a lead investigator in the UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment, understands why many parents will try anything that sounds reasonable. A change to a gluten- and casein-free diet to reduce symptoms. Mega-vitamins for the same. Medical marijuana to calm. Melatonin to sleep. Omega-3 fatty acids for hyperactivity. Delaying or refusing vaccinations. All done, usually, in addition to the standard medications that are prescribed to children on the spectrum, including Ritalin, Adderall or Risperdal.

Autism spectrum disorder affects an estimated one in 68 children in the United States. It's a "spectrum" because symptoms range from a child with signifcant intellectual disabilities, including problems with speech, attention, memory and/or repetitive behaviors, to those who have average or above-average intelligence, but who struggle with social skills.

"The short answer is there simply isn't enough solid scientific evidence to say definitely one way or the other whether most of the alternative treatments help or harm," Jeste said.

The following is a summary of some of the most popular therapies for which evidence is inconclusive:


Sleep disorders are common in children with . "There has been some solid research on the use of melatonin, a neurohormone made naturally by our bodies," Jeste said. Evidence suggests that autism may disrupt the synthesis of natural melatonin or impact melatonin cell receptors in the body. Clinical trials have shown that melatonin can help children with autism fall asleep. However, sometimes melatonin is used in doses too low to be effective as a sleep therapy, said Jeste, who recommends that parents talk to their physician about appropriate dosage.

Diets and supplements

The gluten- and casein-free diet (casein is a protein found in milk) is a popular choice with many families, Jeste said. "Only a few small studies have been done, and they showed very little change in symptoms. There have been a few cases reported where a child's aggression has been calmed a bit." The calming effect may be because these diets are reducing sugar in the child's diet, she said. However, the diet can be costly and can represent a significant burden on families, having to shop at different stores to buy foods that are appropriate.


They are a common and popular supplement providing the "good" bacteria that may correct any imbalance in the gut's bacterial makeup. There are no large-scale that support a benefit, Jeste said. Besides their cost, no harm has been shown to be associated with taking these supplements.

Medical marijuana

Jeste doesn't endorse the use of for autism at this time. She worries about the possible negatives, including cognitive side effects, sleepiness and over time, withdrawal. "But I do understand why it's being used. There are anecdotes about its effectiveness in certain capacities, to improve sleep, and reduce tantrums and irritability." Medical marijuana is being studied actively for use in epilepsy, and it may have benefit in certain types of epilepsy syndromes.

Other unproven theories

Jeste has no tolerance for those who would promote therapies that lack any scientific basis, such as one doctor she heard about who promoted EEGs, or electroencephalograms, as a "cure." EEG is a test that detects electrical activity in a person's brain using small electrodes that are placed on the scalp. It's a tool only—one Jeste uses in her research—but it is not a treatment.

The autism theory most upsetting to Jeste and some other researchers is the idea of a link between childhood vaccines and autism. That now-debunked theory started in 1998, when a then-doctor named Andrew Wakefield published a study in the British journal The Lancet purporting to show a link between vaccines and autism. The study was later identified as fraudulent, was retracted by the medical journal, and his medical license was revoked.

"I think one reason this myth persists is that many symptoms of autism begin to emerge right around the same time that vaccines are given to children," Jeste said.

The lack of a cure

Jeste recognizes the frustration parents feel. Drugs that can be prescribed for autism only treat symptoms, not the cause. There is no cure.

"Autism is not one disorder; it's heterogeneous," she said. The lack of a cure is why she has empathy for parents who will try alternative treatments.

But not only is there little research supporting these alternatives, but some of the therapies are costly. It's better to focus on therapies, such as behavioral interventions, for which there is evidence of a benefit, Jeste said.

One example of a behavioral therapy is one that focuses on the social communication deficits in young children with autism. It's called "Jasper," short for Joint Attention, Symbolic Play, Engagement and Regulation, and was developed by Jeste's colleague, Connie Kasari.

While it's thought that environmental factors may play some role—Jeste pointed out that the age of the parents, maternal drug use, extreme premature birth, in utero hormonal environment—her research and that of others shows that genetic variations are responsible for the majority of all diagnosed cases.

In her research Jeste searches for biomarkers that would identify autism in the youngest of patients, even babies. She is part of a nationwide, multi-center study examining preschool and school-aged children with to identify biomarkers that could help physicians diagnose and track the disease as well as assess treatments in autism patients.

Diagnostics and genetic-testing tools are improving rapidly, Jeste said, and will enable scientists to better understand the role of single genes in disrupted brain development. "These studies will guide more targeted therapeutics that will have more of a chance for success," she said. "I'm very encouraged about the future."

Explore further: Autism severity detected with brain activity test

Related Stories

Autism severity detected with brain activity test

July 25, 2017
UCLA researchers have discovered that children with autism have a tell-tale difference on brain tests compared with other children. Specifically, the researchers found that the lower a child's peak alpha frequency—a number ...

Special diets, supplements for autism still a question mark

May 25, 2017
(HealthDay)—Parents of children with autism often try diet changes or supplements to ease symptoms of the disorder, but a new review concludes there's no solid evidence that any work.

Vitamin D supplements may benefit children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

November 21, 2016
Vitamin D supplementation improved symptoms of autism in a recent trial.

Therapy for kids with autism pays off for moms, dads

August 11, 2017
(HealthDay)—Behavioral therapy for children with autism also benefits their parents, a new study finds.

Autism biomarker seen as boon for new treatments

January 11, 2017
Researchers at the UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment have identified a signature brain-wave pattern for children with autism spectrum disorder related to a genetic condition known as Dup15q syndrome. The research ...

Recommended for you

Autism risk determined by health of mom's gut, research reveals

July 18, 2018
The risk of developing autism-spectrum disorders is determined by the mother's microbiome—the collection of microorganisms that naturally live inside us—during pregnancy, new research from the University of Virginia School ...

Brain scans yield more clues to autism

July 17, 2018
(HealthDay)—Children with autism show abnormalities in a deep brain circuit that typically makes socializing enjoyable, a new study finds.

Autism spectrum disorder linked to shape of brain's cerebellum

July 11, 2018
Structural differences in the cerebellum may be linked to some aspects of autism spectrum disorder, according to a neuroimaging study from Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC).

Autistic people do want to socialize, they may just show it differently

June 28, 2018
A new paper led by the University of Virginia and just published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences is pushing back hard on the notion that people with autism are not interested in socializing.

Researchers discover promising treatment for genetic form of autism spectrum disorder

June 26, 2018
It may soon be possible to reverse a genetic form of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by using drugs initially developed to treat cancer.

CRISPR editing reduces repetitive behavior in mice with a form of autism

June 25, 2018
Scientists have used CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing to lessen some autism symptoms in mice with a form of fragile X syndrome, the most common known single-gene cause of autism spectrum disorder.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.