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The Advantages of Complementary Therapies for Autism

Updated on January 2, 2023

  • Patients have long sought out alternative therapies to find relief from a wide variety of health conditions, and research is emerging in support of many such therapies.
  • Alternative medicine is particularly common among patients with autism spectrum disorder or individuals diagnosed with gastrointestinal conditions, and nutritional supplements are one of the most popular forms of treatment.
  • As evidence for alternative medicine grows and more patients seek to integrate these therapies into their treatment plans, clinicians and patients must work together in an integrative model of care to ensure optimal outcomes.

For many years, alternative medicine remained outside mainstream medicine due to a paucity of scientifically validated evidence. Today, this is rapidly changing—thanks to new developments in alternative medicine research and evolving perspectives among patients and clinicians. Rather than rejecting alternatives to conventional medicine out of hand, patients and physicians are looking to benefit from recent findings. Studies suggest that alternative medicine increasingly plays a role in the treatment of a multitude of conditions and that younger generations of patients and clinicians employ alternative treatment methods more than their predecessors. As alternative therapies increasingly move into the mainstream, patients have more options for finding relief from symptoms than ever before.

The Mainstreaming of Alternative Medicine

  • Despite a plethora of mainstream therapies, patients with autism still often struggle with symptoms and seek out complementary therapies to find more complete relief.
  • Evidence suggests that a number of nutritional supplements, including omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, melotonin, and butyric acid, can help manage symptoms of autism.
  • The bioavailability of nutritional supplements is critical to optimizing their therapeutic benefit.

As parents and clinicians seek to find symptom relief for children with autism spectrum disorder(ASD), complementary therapies are increasingly being used to enhance outcomes. Today, it is estimated that up to 95 percent of caregivers have used some form of complementary therapies, and prevalence of these therapies is rising.

Despite widespread use, the lack of empirical support for certain complementary therapies, such as hyperbaric therapy, has historically led to skepticism of all complementary therapies within the medical community. This is now starting to change. As the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics stated in 2015, “The tide is beginning to shift as evidence accumulates that some [complementary] therapies are addressing abnormal physiology of autism.” Indeed, a growing body of evidence suggests that the advantages of complementary therapies are numerous and can have a significant beneficial impact on both ASD symptoms and overall quality of life. In particular, nutritional supplements are offering innovative and well-tolerated ways of addressing symptoms to enhance the outcome of therapies.

Shortcomings Of Conventional Therapies

The popularity of complementary therapies to address ASD symptoms can be attributed to two primary factors: these therapies typically have fewer side effects than psychopharmacological therapies, and they can address symptoms that have not been successfully resolved using conventional therapies.

45.7 percent of patients with autism use psychotropic medications, primarily antipsychotics or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Although these medications can have significant clinical benefits for some symptoms, they can also present tolerability and safety challenges. Though effective at reducing ASD symptoms like irritability, antipsychotics can produce side effects that interfere with functionality and quality of life, such as weight gain, fatigue, and tremors. SSRIs can also have bothersome side effect profiles. Understandably, tolerability issues and potential safety concerns worry some parents, leading them to seek out alternatives.

Psychotropic medication is not the mainstay of ASD therapy for most patients. Rather, it involves a range of therapies designed to address the multiple, complex needs of individuals with ASD. One study describes an optimal lifetime therapy strategy for ASD as, “Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI), special education, psychopharmacology, medical interventions, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, vocational therapy, social skills training, and instruction in adaptive living skills.” And, indeed, many of these therapies are remarkably effective in addressing specific symptoms, as well as improving overall function. However, even with thoughtfully layered conventional therapies, certain symptoms can remain unresolved. As such, many parents look beyond conventional therapies to find safe and effective symptom relief for their children.

The Potential of Nutritional Supplements as Complementary Therapies

Today there is a broad range of complementary therapies that address the symptoms of autism with varying degrees of efficacy. Yoga, for example, has been found to enhance sensory awareness and integration, while research suggests that equine-assisted therapy helps address maladaptive behaviors. But while there are many complementary therapies to address ASD symptoms, nutritional supplements are among the most commonly used due to their efficacy, tolerability, and safety. Significantly, a number of these supplements have been shown to successfully address some of the same symptoms addressed by psychopharmacological interventions.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation has been found to help address social regulation, irritability, and self-injurious behaviors in ASD patients. In one study, omega-3 fatty acid supplementation, with additional micronutrient supplementation, was more effective than antipsychotic pharmacological therapy for addressing aberrant and self-injurious behaviors while reducing overall scores on the Childhood Autism Rating Scale and the Childhood Psychiatric Rating Scale. The study also found that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation helped with social initiation. Significantly, supplementation was found to produce significantly fewer side effects than antipsychotic medication.

A different study indicated that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation enhances the social responsiveness of adolescents with ASD without causing serious side effects. 

Vitamin D

Much like with omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D supplementation is popular and effective. Vitamin D supplementation might result in addressing ASD symptoms, with one study suggesting broad beneficial effects of supplementation for 75 percent of patients. Specifically, vitamin D supplementation helps with social cognition, social awareness, and social motivation while reducing hyperactivity and social withdrawal. Vitamin D supplementation causes few side effects, and 57 percent of children with ASD might have a vitamin D deficiency, leading some researchers to suspect that ASD patients might have impaired vitamin D metabolism.


Approximately seven percent of children with ASD take melatonin supplements for help with insomnia, a condition commonly experienced by individuals with autism. According to one study, 68.7 percent of children with ASD responded to delayed-release melatonin supplementation. Melatonin helps initiate and maintain sleep, supports better quality of sleep, and helps maintain a consistent waking time. It is also considered safe for long-term use, and might also address hyperactivity.

Although there are few reported side effects, melatonin should be used with caution in ASD patients with seizure disorders or brain injuries.

Butyric Acid

Butyric acid is a relative newcomer to the supplement scene with regard to addressing ASD symptoms. Although naturally produced by bacteria in the gut, patients with ASD typically have disrupted gut flora, meaning that their ability to self-regulate their butyric acid concentrations is compromised. As a result, individuals with ASD might require supplementation to experience the beneficial effects of butyric acid and to restore a healthy gut flora, which might help address gastrointestinal disturbances associated with ASD.

Many of the beneficial effects of butyric acid are a result of its rare ability to inhibit histone deacetylase (HDAC), an enzyme that is critical to many biological processes. HDAC inhibitors like butyric acid have been used successfully in several disease contexts to reverse neurodegeneration. While it remains to be seen whether HDAC inhibitors are beneficial in humans, in mouse models of ASD other HDAC inhibitors have successfully addressed the symptoms of social withdrawal and helped with social cognition.

Bioavailability is the Future of Nutritional Supplementation

The growing recognition of advantages of complementary therapies in general—the efficacy of nutritional supplements specifically to address ASD symptoms is opening up innovative ways for individuals with autism to find relief from a broad spectrum of symptoms. Already we are seeing wider adoption of these therapies by parents, clinicians, and patients themselves to complement conventional therapies.However, optimizing the benefits of nutritional supplements will require the production of highly bioavailable supplement forms. Unfortunately, differences in the GI tracts and drug metabolisms between individuals with ASD and the general population can make bioavailability a complex issue. More specifically, individuals with autism are prone to absorbing nutrients with either diminished or excessive efficiency, which interferes with predictable therapeutic effects. To correct for this, supplement manufacturers like Tesseract Medical Research are now offering advanced delivery systems that enhance bioavailability, potentially helping patients achieve better and more stable outcomes. As such delivery systems come into mainstream use, the ability of patients to benefit from nutrition-based complementary therapies will greatly expand, opening up new possibilities for symptom management.

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.*

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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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