Welcome to day two of the A to Z Challenge. Today, I want to focus on a controversial subject: biomedical interventions for autism. Biomedical intervention can mean different things to different people. For example, NICE, the UK’s national institute that provides guidance on improving health and social care, defines biomedical treatment as any biologically-based intervention, including medications like antipsychotics. Most people in the autism community, however, see biomedical interventions as specifically treating biological dysfunction that they presume underlies autism.
Problems commonly believed to underlie autism include gastrointestinal disorders, food intolerances and immune dysfunction. These conditions are not always easy to diagnose, so many parents end up trying biomedical treatments on their autistic children based on a trial-and-error approach. This is not necessarily bad and is sometimes even recommended by regular doctors.
Biomedical treatments include special diets such as the gluten-free/casein-free diet or the Feingold diet, the latter of which is gaining increasing ground for being an effective intervention for ADHD. A special diet can be an elimination diet, as the GF/CF and Feingold diets are, but it can also be a diet that encourages people to eat certain foods, such as those containing essential fatty acids.
Biomedical treatments also include nutritional supplements such as vitamin B6 and magnesium, vitamin B12 or DMG (dymethylglycine). Hormones like melatonin (the sleep hormone) may also be used as part of a biomedical intervention.
Heavy metal chelation, where a person gets medications to remove metals like mercury or lead from thier system, is perhaps the most controversial biomedical treatment for autism. This is not only because autistic people do not have significantly higher levels of heavy metals in their systems than non-autistic people and hence the treatment is unproven, but also because it is one of the more dagngerous interventions.
There is no proof at this point that biomedical treatments are effective for autism, or even that physical conditions like the ones I mentioned above cause autism. However, many parents do report their child’s behavior significantly improves with these interventions. This could be because, like non-autistic children, autistic children may very well have food intolerances, nutritinal deficiencies, etc. These may cause significant physical discomfort. I for one do have a diagnosed vitamin B12 deficiency and irritable bowel syndrome (which is thought to be triggered by certain foods). When I got treated for the B12 deficiency, I not only got better physically, but mentally as well. This is the most plausible reason biomedical treatments help autistic children: they feel better physically so their behavior improves.