5 Pseudo-Science Myths About Treating Autism

There is no cure for autism.

But that hasn’t stopped many people from claiming to have found one.

Scientists and medical professionals continue to investigate the causes and mechanisms of the disorder, but the only strong consensus is that the research has yet to produce anything that could be considered concrete and actionable.

Researchers have identified factors in the progression of the disorder that suggest a link to everything from genetics to complications during pregnancy to chemical exposure and environmental factors in early childhood.

But so far, research hasn’t lead to any real definitive answers, and certainly hasn’t produced any real leads on an actual cure.

Unfortunately, this ambiguity leaves an opening for families living with ASD that are hoping against hope that a cure is out there somewhere… and for quacks and charlatans selling snake oil in the form of some pseudo-scientific treatment that has no basis in science.

One of the few things that is known about autism treatment is that in multiple careful, controlled scientific studies, applied behavior analysis therapy has been proven to have measurable results. ABA isn’t a cure for autism, but it can provide the coping skills and tools that allow people who live with ASD to enjoy relatively normal, healthy, happy lives even as they deal with the effects of the disorder itself.

Easy answers and quick fixes are always too good to be true. If there truly was a definitive solution, you better believe that the teachers and therapists who work with kids on the spectrum everyday would be shouting about it from the rooftops.

In most cases, false claims amount to little more than dashed hopes and some wasted time and money. But in the worst cases, these seemingly magical cures can actually cause harm. Be wary of anybody promising the impossible, so matter how good the pitch might be.

Here we present the top 5 most common pseudo-scientific myths and false claims being hocked on the internet for treating autism spectrum disorders.

  1. Diet… Eating Your Way Out of ASD

    Faced with a situation that is outside their control, many parents of autistic children turn to things they can control, and the child’s diet is always at the top of the list.

    There is no shortage of spurious reports out there about how dietary changes can actually cure autism– both from hopeful parents eager to see improvement (even if there is no clear sign) and from charlatans selling a cure.

    These treatments take on various forms:

    • Removing all dairy from the diet
    • Going to entirely organic foods
    • Eliminating all gluten from the diet
    • Various combinations of fish, poultry, and foods high in some supposedly curative vitamin or mineral, according to the theory of the proponent

    There is often some sort of pseudo-scientific rationale behind the dietary cure-alls that people promote. You might read about the effects of gluten on digestion and gut bacteria… or dispersing peptides or viruses… or alterations in brain chemistry brought on by omega-3 fatty acids.

    While we can all agree that proper diet and nutrition would help anybody achieve optimal health, and that everybody has unique dietary needs that should absolutely be taken into consideration, none of the health benefits that come from dietary changes have been found to have any genuine bearing on the known physiological elements of autism… and none have brought about the kind of transformative “cure” that people have been lead to believe.

  1. Discipline… Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child

    This is one of the most dangerous ideas being promoted for dealing with kids on the spectrum because it can actually be both physically and psychologically harmful to children dealing with the stresses associated with the disorder.

    Some people, particularly when faced with milder cases of autism, deny that there is any disorder at all. Instead, they believe that children showing the behavioral symptoms of autism are just over-indulged, and maybe firmer and more consistent discipline is the answer.

    In the worst cases, people have been led to believe that corporal punishment is the answer– as if piling child abuse on top of the anxiety and emotional dysregulation that kids with ASD so often deal with is somehow going to correct their problematic behavior.

    Needless to say, punishing a child who has no real control over their behavioral outbursts is nothing but psychologically damaging, and at its worst, would be grounds for getting Child Protective Services involved.

    Autism is not simply an excuse for bad behavior—it is a genuine developmental disorder with a demonstrated physiological basis and deserves to be treated with scientifically validated therapies that are known to result in behavioral change… rather than a spanking, which is only known to bring about fear, self-harm and emotional distress.

  1. Magnet Therapy… Not to Be Confused with Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation

    Magnets have long been a favorite pseudo-scientific cure for all sorts of disease and disorders. Magnetic bracelets have been a mainstay of the pseudo-scientific community of alternative health providers and therapists since the ‘70s. Taking that a step further, magnet therapy sessions in which static magnets are placed at various points on the body have been purported to cure cancer, heal broken bones, alleviate arthritis… and now cures autism too!

    None of these claims has ever been proven, but that hasn’t stopped proponents of magnet therapy from adding autism to the list of disorders that magnets can magically cure.

    Maddeningly, this myth actually has some relationship to a legitimate scientific treatment that has shown mixed results in early testing: transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a targeted, medical treatment that is already approved for treating some mental disorders, such as depression, and is being tried on autism patients in clinical trials.

    The machinery, precision, and mechanism of TMS therapy is light-years beyond a handful of dime store magnets in a necklace or a magnet therapy session in the backroom of a health food store, however, so don’t get the two confused.

  1. Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy… O2,You Gotta Be Kidding Me

    Hyperbaric chambers are used quite effectively in treating a number of diseases and other medical conditions including divers suffering from nitrogen narcosis (the bends), patients with deep burns, and crushing injuries.

    The chambers work by pressurizing oxygen around the body or lungs at a level that is higher than normal atmospheric concentrations. This effectively forces additional oxygen into the tissues, which has a genuine therapeutic and even curative benefit for a number of conditions.

    More recently, it is also being explored as a legitimate treatment for autism. We certainly don’t want to be dismissive of any treatment that shows promise of any kind. In fact, preliminary studies have shown limited behavioral improvements in children professionally treated with hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

    The problem is that few of those studies were properly controlled, and those that were showed conflicting results. Many clinicians doubt that the benefits of oxygen could be demonstrated as quickly as the studies seem to suggest. As everyone in the scientific community knows, when Occam’s razor makes its cut it’s simply going to eliminate anything that relies too much on unsubstantiated assumptions. Without empirical studies to back it up, oxygen therapy remains a promise for a cure that is just too good to be true.

    Even beyond the fact that oxygen therapy hasn’t been proven to be effective, there is real cause for concern when a therapy of this sort is administered by people outside the medical profession without the qualifications necessary to properly evaluate the results.

  1. Homeopathy… Isolate a Symptom-Inducing Agent and You’ve Got Your Cure

    Homeopaths and other alternative health practitioners have been known to prescribe a variety of homeopathic remedies as a way to treat ASD. They offer false hope in the form of an easy solution to a complex neurological disorder– a solution that is so easy, that most people would actually find the claims dubious and the methods laughable.

    At the core of homeopathy is the need to isolate what is known as a “similimum:” a particular drug or other agent that would produce symptoms in neurotypical kids that appear similar to those associated with the autism spectrum disorder.

    In homeopathic circles, it’s believed that giving kids with ASD a heavily diluted tincture of the similimum will somehow result in the symptoms being reversed… Yeah, you got that right: give kids with ASD a minute amount of an agent that is known to cause kids to be withdrawn, incapable of regulating emotions, and inclined to repetitive and obsessive behavior, and voila – they will stop having those problems.

    The belief is that there is a different agent or drug for every individual on the spectrum, so homeopaths will insist on observing and noting the particular behaviors of the patient before developing a treatment plan—a format that closely resembles the functional behavior assessment that ABAs routinely perform. This parallel tends to give the treatment a veneer of respectability that most would agree isn’t deserved, and that definitely doesn’t bear out in trials.

    Even beyond misleading parents into false hopes for an easy cure, this kind of treatment has the potential to cause real harm since the actual agents selected for the similimum could be dangerous.