Evaluating the Efficacy of Treatment for Autism

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently warned a number of companies that they are facing possible legal action if they continue to make false or misleading claims about products and therapies claiming to treat or cure autism.

Autism is a general term for autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which encompasses a broad range of complex neurological disorders characterized by difficulties with communication and social interaction, as well as cognitive delays.  The Centers for Disease Control estimates that currently, one in 68 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Although the traits of autism are readily identifiable, finding the best approaches to treating the disorder has proven a daunting task.  Unfortunately, as families search for ways to help their children succeed, they often fall prey to dubious claims made by those who seek to profit from parents’ desperation.

Navigating a crowded maze of “miracle” treatments and “cutting edge” interventions can leave parents wondering what to do—or perhaps feeling the need to do everything in an attempt to leave no stone unturned. However, some of these alternative methods may pose serious health risks to children, and in the end, do more harm than good.  Some of the most severe “treatments” being sold to parents include anti-fungal agent therapy; DIY fecal transplant therapy; turpentine; Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS); chemical castration; and chelation therapy, which have been linked to the deaths of at least two children.

Some of these so-called therapies claim to have science-based evidence behind them.  But if you look closely, you’ll find that most rely on unproven theory or use anecdotal stories to back up their efficacy claims, while, in fact, none are proven, evidence-based treatments.

Understanding Evidence-Based Therapies

When choosing a treatment for any child, there are some special considerations to keep in mind.  Parents need to consider cost and availability, of course, but the most important consideration should be: “Is this treatment based on scientific evidence?” Evidence-based treatments are supported by carefully and rigorously designed scientific studies the results, of which have been shown to be measurable, repeatable, and sustainable.

While it may be tempting to look for a “quick fix” for ASD, the reality is that the complexity of the disorder makes finding a “cure” difficult, at best.  Treatments promising to cure or instantly improve or reduce the symptoms of autism should immediately trigger skepticism.  One parent reported to her online support group that she had used more than 50 unsupported treatments on her young son in the hopes of alleviating his autism.  These included several anti-fungal agents, chelation therapy, probiotics, salt baths, vitamins, minerals, and the banned synthetic chemical BDTH2.

Making health care decisions for your child is a responsibility that should never be taken lightly.  Knowing what to ask is an important step in separating fact from fiction.  Here are some of the top things parents should know about any treatment they are considering for their child.

  1. What scientific research has been done and can the practitioner provide you with well-developed studies?
  2. In the studies, how were improvements measured, and what kinds of data were collected to show this? Was the number of study participants large or small?
  3. Does the study conclude that its results show “statistical significance?” (Statistical significance is often expressed in a study as a “p” value equal to or less than .05, that is, p≤ .05.)How long will the treatment take?  Be wary of anyone claiming “rapid recovery.”


Be thorough in your examination of the supporting evidence, and consider that the best answers are not always the ones you want to hear.  Finally, ask as many questions as possible. If the practitioner cannot provide concrete answers, it may be time to move on.

In the Internet age, it is important to remember that anyone can get online and make claims regarding the effectiveness of an autism treatment. These claims are primarily targeted at susceptible parents seeking to find anything that will help recover their child from autism.  Sadly, most of these claims are only aimed at profiting from parents’ distress.