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Complementary Therapies for Autism

Updated on December 22, 2022

  • Use of complementary therapies is becoming increasingly common among patients with autism, with nutritional supplements being the most prevalent.
  • Parents of children with autism overwhelmingly report that nutritional supplements provide at least some beneficial effects, although studies show mixed results when investigating efficacy.
  • Nutritional support optimized for bioavailability might be critical to realizing meaningful and predictable benefits.

Although complementary therapies are experiencing broader mainstream acceptance within the clinical context of autism therapy, complementary therapies for autism are not without controversy. While parents of patients and clinicians report that complementary therapies, particularly nutritional supplements, are helpful, the scientific literature on the topic suggests this isn’t uniformly the case. Now, some believe the variable bioavailability of nutritional supplements might explain the inconsistencies in research findings. Additionally, increasing the bioavailability of nutritional supplements by catering their delivery mechanisms to the unique gut microenvironment in autism spectrum disorders is essential to providing benefits.

Parents Report Benefits of Complementary Therapies for Autism

Complementary therapies are defined as therapies that are used in conjunction with conventional medical treatments. Unlike alternative medicine, which seeks to replace conventional medicine, complementary therapies work alongside conventional treatments to promote more complete relief of symptoms while optimizing quality of life for the patient. Today, complementary therapies are increasingly being recognized as invaluable components of an integrative model of care.

For the treatment of autism, complementary therapies involving nutritional supplements are particularly popular. This type of therapy refers to the use of food or food products, including supplements, to provide medical benefits. Parents of children with autism often turn to these therapies because they might potentially benefit autism spectrum disorder symptoms that have not been successfully resolved using conventional medicine alone, while also avoiding the risk of undesirable side-effects. Unfortunately, empirical studies are limited in their scope for assessing the efficacy of complementary therapies in general and nutritional supplements in particular for symptoms of autism. Instead, most studies focus on parent perception of a therapy’s efficacy in their child’s treatment.

According to a 2015 study, 74.5 percent of parents of children with autism reported they had tried using a nutritional supplement as a complementary therapy recently or in the past. Research indicates that a large majority of parents find these therapies to be valuable, with one study revealing that parents felt that 75 percent of the nutritional supplements they tried were at least somewhat effective in managing symptoms of autism or the specific issue for which the supplement was indicated. In a similar study, a majority of parents utilizing nutritional supplements for autism agreed that the supplements were often helpful in alleviating symptoms and were at worst ineffective; no negative effects were reported.

These studies show that many nutritional supplements are an important part of many children’s autism regimen despite a lack of rigorous studies suggesting a single effective regimen. If the science doesn’t demonstrate the success of nutritional supplements for dealing with the symptoms of autism, then why do parents tend to think they work? What are parents seeing that researchers are not?

Explaining the Inconsistencies in Studies on Complementary Therapies

Parents are not the only ones who believe in the positive effects of nutritional supplements; clinicians too are increasingly integrating such therapies in management plans. Already, many clinicians are recommending supplements like omega-3 fatty acids, digestive enzymes, probiotics, and vitamin D to address specific issues and observing their benefits.

However, the efficacy of these therapies remains controversial within the scientific community owing to conflicting research findings; some researchers conclude that nutritional supplements might be efficacious; whereas, other researchers conclude the opposite. These inconsistencies might be caused by a number of factors. Such factors include methodology flaws that prevent the identification of positive results, inadequate supplement testing conditions, and the unique GI tract of autism patients that interferes with the bioavailability of the active ingredient.

Many studies of complementary therapies for autism suffer from the same issues:

  • Relying on parent reports of symptoms rather than firsthand reports of symptoms
  • Lumping disparate types of therapies into one group
  • Lumping disparate symptoms into one group
  • Failing to connect specific therapies with response to specific symptoms
  • Failing to control for or compare to conventional medicine

Any or all of these issues can make differentiation between the most and least effective therapies impossible. They also preclude meaningful insight into whether specific complementary therapy regimens are helpful in reducing patient symptomatology. Thus, many complementary therapies for autism might be held back by study designs that fail to capture the benefits experienced by the patients or observed by parents and clinicians.

Nutritional supplement therapies, in particular, present an additional methodological challenge. Many nutritional supplements have their pharmacokinetics established in studies of healthy individuals. Popular nutritional supplements like fish oil are a perfect example of this phenomenon. The expected bioavailability of fish oil assumes the gastrointestinal tract of a neurotypical person. As a result, studies of the efficacy of fish oil in different pathological contexts use these assumptions to establish a dose-response relationship. Because autism is typically accompanied by a substantially altered GI tract, it is inadequate to use the same pharmacokinetic standards for fish oil for an autistic individual as for those without. This unrealistic expectation is part of a larger issue that could account for the discrepancies within the literature: autism-related GI issues can interfere with supplement bioavailability and its supplement bioavailability that is essential for effective therapy. The ability to benefit from nutritional supplements can vary from person to person based on their specific GI challenges, which could explain why some parents and clinicians report symptom improvement that research studies don’t reflect on a larger scale.

Bioavailability Might Be the Key to Nutraceutical Complementary Therapies

Given the link between autism spectrum disorders and GI-tract pathologies, the primary challenge for GI-tract targeted nutritional supplements for autism is bioavailability. Unfortunately, the current scientific literature on supplement use in the therapy of autism-related symptoms does not account for bioavailability variation between individuals. Researchers also overwhelmingly do not test nutritional supplements in the context of highly bioavailable formats made specifically for individuals with autism but test in the context of common supplements. Common supplements are compounded or manufactured without special release systems. As a result, many common supplements can have low bioavailability in autistic individuals. For example, one study found significant differences in the bioavailability of orally administered linoleic acid between neurotypical individuals and autistic individuals when using a traditional delivery system.

The bioavailability of nutritional supplement therapies for individuals with autism is a complex issue, because GI tracts and drug metabolism are markedly different in individuals with autism than in neurotypical individuals. Individuals with autism might absorb supplement ingredients less efficiently (preventing the therapeutic concentration from accumulating) or with excess efficiency (causing a spike in plasma concentration that is eliminated too quickly for sustained symptom treatment). As such, supplementing individuals with autism requires a delivery system that can account for these abnormalities to optimize therapeutic efficacy.

In response to the growing body of evidence documenting the nature of autism-related GI pathologies, new supplementdelivery systems are being developed to offer higher bioavailability. Cutting-edge delivery systems, such as those recently introduced by Tesseract Medical Research, are designed to allow complementary therapies for autism to produce better, more predictable results. As our understanding of the bioavailability challenges experienced by individuals with autism expands, such delivery systems might one day become the standard for nutritional supplement therapies targeting symptoms of autism, helping patients enhance quality of life.

The power of Tesseract supplements lies in the proprietary science of proven nutrients and unrivaled smart delivery, making them the most effective for supporting neurological health and gastrointestinal health.*

Works Cited

Alternative and Complementary Therapies. 2015. 21(2):92-97.

El-Ansary AK, Ben Bacha AG, Al-Ayadhi LY. 2011. Lipids in Health and Disease. 10(1):63.

Granich J, Hunt A, Ravine D, Wray J, Whitehouse AJO. 2014. Journal of Autism.(4).

Hanson E, Kalish LA, Bunce E, Curtis C, McDaniel S, et al. 2006. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 37(4):628–636.

Hart J, Bock KA, Cartaxo A, Converse J, Ferro P. 2015. Alternative and Complementary Therapies. 21(2):84-89.

Hsiao EY. 2014. Harvard Review of Psychiatry. 22(2):104-111.

McElhanon BO, McCracken C, Karpen S, Sharp WG. 2014. Pediatrics. 133(5):872–883.

Owen-Smith AA, Bent S, Lynch FL, Coleman KJ, Yau VM, et al. 2015. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. 17:40–51.

Sathe N, Andrews JC, McPheeters ML, Warren ZE. 2017. Pediatrics. 139(6).

Al Czap, Founder | Tesseract

Al Czap has more than four decades of professional experience in preventative medicine. He founded Thorne Research in 1984 (sold in 2010) and he published Alternative Medicine Review for 17 years beginning in 1996. AMR was a highly acclaimed, peer-reviewed, and indexed medical journal. Al was the first to recognize the need for hypoallergenic ingredients and to devise methods of manufacture for and delivery of hypoallergenic products to underserved patient populations. His work has greatly impacted those with impaired immune and digestive systems and compromised health due to environmental exposures.

The advanced formulations based on our revolutionary, patented, and patent-pending technology are only available through Tesseract. No other medical, pharmaceutical, or supplement company is licensed to utilize our proprietary technology.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
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