The Dangers of Snake-Oil Treatments for Autism

Sep 24, 2016

By Alisa Opar

When her daughter was diagnosed with autism in 2004, Ariane Zurcher threw herself into researching a condition she knew nothing about. Everything she read indicated a bleak future for Emma, then a toddler. It led Zurcher to believe Emma would never form deep relationships, and would probably lack empathy. She might have compulsive behaviors and meltdowns or try to harm herself. She might never speak or be toilet-trained, and, once Zurcher and her husband died, she might have to be institutionalized. Zurcher says she felt as though she were “descending into hell.”

“I was desperate to save my daughter,” says Zurcher. “We went to everybody. We tried everything.”

She and her husband took Emma to neurologists, gastroenterologists, behavioral, speech and occupational therapists, nutritionists, naturopaths, a shaman and homoeopath, a craniosacral therapist, and a Qigong master. A developmental pediatrician—who didn’t take insurance, charged at least $200 per visit and had a months-long waiting list—recommended they call a psychic in Europe; the psychic, ironically, refused payment because she didn’t pick up a ‘signal’ from them. They tried dozens of treatments that claimed to have ‘recovered’ children with autism, including numerous vitamin supplements, topical ointments, restrictive diets, chelation, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, brain scans, a so-called detoxification system, and stem-cell therapy.

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6 comments on “The Dangers of Snake-Oil Treatments for Autism

  • One of the real concerns that i have as a classroom teacher (and my wife is in an autistic support role in a 5-7 year old classroom) is the term “autism”. One sure way to confound a discussion is to have an underlying misunderstanding regarding the definition of the topic you are discussing.

    Case in point; Autism.

    We (in the US) …(or at least in Philly)….tend to use the term and refer to the “umbrella” of autism. 25 years ago, counselors wrote “FLK” in their files (it stood for “funny looking kid”)… We can be talking about Asperger’s, PDD (pervasive developmental disorder), or severe autism, or really really severe autism…

    So, our discussion should start with a clarification of terms. First off, parents of kids with Aspergers (IMO) should not and need not seek to “fix” their kids. The more severe forms of the disorder, as far as I know, do not have treatments, and, further, their etiology is not currently understood. And, while the etiology is not a necessary component to finding a “cure” (we’ve been treating different maladies with remedies that are traditional and that were developed long before formal science was applied to the treatment)… I feel that with Autism, a rigorous understanding of the causes and underlying genetics, environmental and other risk factors will, in reality, lead us to the methods that will first lessen and then down the road (optimism) really help people to live less affected lives.

    At this point anyone offering any mitigating therapies should be scrutinized and treated with proper skepticism. There are just too many opportunists preying on too many desperate parents.

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  • I think all new parents of autism spectrum kids should read Neurotribes by Steve Silberman.

    I’ll let this review do most of the talking.

    Society has much of its advancement from those on the spectrum. Living with, utilising, and celebrating, neural diversity may be mankind’s greatest trick. The terrible twos is when the ferocious back pruning of a spectacular post-natal neural growth spurt is at its most disruptive and there is a suggestion (not in the book) that a recent (2.5Mya) evolution (concerning GABA transportatioon in the PreFrontal Cortex) predisposed us to a more systemising (aspie) mindset mostly in men. A double parental dose and predisposing environment creates the extreme end of the spectrum, some think. This predisposition seems to be manifested from this time. Because the effects happen post natal, working on the phenotype, the story for an individual is not concluded until enculturation is no longer affecting. Remarkable transitions seem possible in many cases, where the terrible twos became the utterly attrocious fours and eights. The not too bad 16s and really rather good-but-different twenties are a real prospect for some/many when they have supportive parents and teachers/therapists intent on building on their particular assett base.

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  • Oh, I must take this opportunity to recommend Temple Grandin’s books. They give astonishing and delicious insight into the useful differentness of the autistic brain. A well regarded (autistic!) Professor of Animal Science, she has done more to give a voice to autists than any.

    A very creditable eponymous HBO biopic, “Temple Grandin” starring Clare Danes is very worth seeking out. Her performance is simply fantastic. A must see.

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