In The Politics of Autism, I write:Mark Wheeler writes at UCLA:
The conventional wisdom is that any kind of treatment is likely to be less effective as the child gets older, so parents of autistic children usually believe that they are working against the clock. They will not be satisfied with the ambiguities surrounding ABA, nor will they want to wait for some future research finding that might slightly increase its effectiveness. They want results now. Because there are no scientifically-validated drugs for the core symptoms of autism, they look outside the boundaries of mainstream medicine and FDA approval. Studies have found that anywhere from 28 to 54 percent of autistic children receive “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), and these numbers probably understate CAM usage
Dr. Shafali Jeste knows well the desperation of a parent seeking a cure for their child with autism spectrum disorder. As a clinician who both researches the causes of the disorder and treats children with autism, Jeste, UCLA associate professor of psychiatry, neurology and pediatrics and a lead investigator in the UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment, understands why many parents will try anything that sounds reasonable. A change to a gluten- and casein-free diet to reduce symptoms. Mega-vitamins for the same. Medical marijuana to calm. Melatonin to sleep. Omega-3 fatty acids for hyperactivity. Delaying or refusing vaccinations. All done, usually, in addition to the standard medications that are prescribed to children on the spectrum, including Ritalin, Adderall or Risperdal.
“The short answer is there simply isn’t enough solid scientific evidence to say definitely one way or the other whether most of the alternative treatments help or harm,” Jeste said.
The autism theory most upsetting to Jeste and some other researchers is the idea of a link between childhood vaccines and autism. That now-debunked theory started in 1998, when a then-doctor named Andrew Wakefield published a study in the British journal the Lancet purporting to show a link between vaccines and autism. The study was later identified as fraudulent, was retracted by the medical journal, and his medical license was revoked.
“I think one reason this myth persists is that many symptoms of autism begin to emerge right around the same time that vaccines are given to children,” Jeste saidBehavioral interventions currently hold more hope.
One example of a behavioral therapy is one that focuses on the social communication deficits in young children with autism. It’s called “Jasper,” short for Joint Attention, Symbolic Play, Engagement and Regulation, and was developed by Jeste’s colleague, Connie Kasari.
While it’s thought that environmental factors may play some role — Jeste pointed out that the age of the parents, maternal drug use, extreme premature birth, in utero hormonal environment — her research and that of others shows that genetic variations are responsible for the majority of all diagnosed cases.
In her research Jeste searches for biomarkers that would identify autism in the youngest of patients, even babies. She is part of a nationwide, multi-center study examining preschool and school-aged children with autism spectrum disorders to identify biomarkers that could help physicians diagnose and track the disease as well as assess treatments in autism patients.