Quackery exploiting autism families

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Posted 31 October 2016

An article by Jane McCredie, published in the Medical Journal Australia

A FEW years ago, I attended a scientific conference on autism. In the foyer, among the drug company stands and the stalls selling learning aids, was a promotional display for hyperbaric oxygen treatment.

Commercial providers of this service claim it offers huge benefits for everything from infectious diseases to cancer. For children with autism, it’s alleged to improve cognitive and general function as well as social and language skills.

Weirdly, providers often describe it as a “natural” treatment, offering it alongside homeopathy and various dietary programs. How being put into a metal chamber to breathe pressurised oxygen can be considered natural beats me.

There’s no evidence to support the use of this or many of the other alternative treatments promoted for autism, as Dr Andrew Whitehouse of Perth’s Telethon Institute has written, but that’s not going to stop parents from trying them.

With mainstream medicine unable to offer a silver bullet for the condition, it’s perhaps not surprising that desperate families look elsewhere.

Between 52% and 95% of children with autism have been treated with complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies, compared with around 30% of children in the general population, according to research cited by Dr Whitehouse.

It’s a universal law that, where there is desperation, there will be quacks.

At the extreme end of the spectrum would have to be the “treatment” exposed recently by a BBC investigation in the UK.

The business in question was offering a so-called cure for autism based on a series of “mind treatment” sessions designed to locate an autistic patient’s “inner trauma”. The cost for the series of training sessions was £3500, according to the BBC.

One secretly filmed session shows the therapist repeatedly abusing the reporter posing as a patient, repeatedly asking him at one point to choose between a punch and a slap.

The treatment would seem more likely to cause inner trauma than to cure it.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is certainly mild by comparison, though it does carry some risk of seizures associated with excess oxygen in the blood.

Other autism treatments without an evidence base include chelation, stem cell therapies, immune therapies, various diets and supplements, and, of course, homeopathy.

Unsurprisingly, sites offering these quack therapies also often trumpet long discredited claims about a link between autism and childhood vaccination.

The most ambitious of all the proposed treatments for autism must surely be the Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS), invented by a Mr Jim Humble, which in true 19th century style promises to treat not only autism, but acne, Alzheimer’s, acid reflux, arthritis, asthma and andropause. And that’s only the A’s …

As this particular miracle is essentially composed of bleach, the Therapeutic Goods Administration has warned it poses a serious health risk if consumed by humans.

At least, the 19th century cure-all potions generally had alcohol as their main ingredient.

MMS is not the only alternative autism remedy to carry obvious risks of physical side effects, and all of the bogus cures rob families of funds they could use for services that might actually make a difference.

But, in the absence of a cure for conditions such as autism, there’s one thing we can be sure of: as soon as regulators or the media expose one shonky operator, another will rise to fill the space.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and health writer, journalist and publisher.

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