It was ten years ago that my now 14-year-old son Charlie was diagnosed with autism. While we received information from the child development center in Minneapolis that diagnosed him and from the St. Paul Public School District about treatments and therapies, we also — as does every parent I’ve met — struck out on our own to find ways to help our little guy. My husband Jim brought home stacks of books from what used to be The Hungry Mind bookstore on Grand Avenue in St. Paul and the libraries of two local colleges and we started reading everything we could find on the internet. We quickly found lots of information — almost too much — about alternative, experimental therapies (special diets, nutritional supplements, dolphins, prism lenses).
While we often found plenty of anecdotal reports, often from parents, about the wonders of some therapy or other, evidence-based scientific research to back up claims about multivitamins, anti-fungal therapy and the like was always — is still — in short supply. But no one , not even physicians, seemed willing to just say “those claims are over-rated” or “that just doesn’t work.” The recent medical investigation of one doctor who’s offered a highly controversial treatment involving autistic children gives parents a clearer idea of what treatments to avoid.
Many alternative treatments for autism involve giving a child various supplements and even drugs for experimental therapies. A highly controversial treatment called for giving children lupron, which is a drug prescribed to men with prostate cancer, women with fibroids and sex offenders. It can also be prescribed for children who have a rare condition, precocious puberty, but in these cases it has been called “chemical castration.” It is not a treatment for autism, though it has been used by a Maryland doctor, Mark Geier, both in that state and in clinics called ASD Centers that he operates in at least eight states.
Geier’s medical license was suspended by Maryland Board of Physicians in April; a month later, the state of Washington also suspended his medical license. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Illinois will also be conducting a hearing on August 22 on whether or not Geier should be allowed to practice medicine in that state. Geier currently operates a clinic in Springfield, Illinois; he also has one just over the river in St. Peters, Missouri. It’s not clear if he is being investigated in Missouri according to a spokesman for the Missouri healing arts board.
As St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Blythe Bernhard reports,
Geier has written that mercury in childhood vaccines can exacerbate testosterone levels in children with autism and cause symptoms of aggression. He prescribes Lupron to reduce their testosterone levels. His research has been criticized by the Institute of Medicine and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The organizations have concluded there is no link between vaccines and autism based on multiple studies.
Washington University professor and autism researcher John Constantino is quoted as saying that Geier “understands the tools of science but has applied them in questionable ways” to justify specific treatments.
Constantino’s statement can be applied to those who, like Geier, offer alternative and experimental treatments for autism. Many such practitioners speak at conferences including the annual Autism One conference in Chicago and the Autism Research Institute‘s conferences. Cambridge University researchers have connected fetal testosterone to autistic traits. But it is one thing to conduct basic research and another to convert preliminary findings into a full-fledged treatment, especially one that involves powerful medications used on children who may very well be non-verbal and not able to communicate the effects of the medication.
There’s often some tension between parents of autistic children and “traditional” physicians who counsel at least moderation and certainly caution in turning your child into a bit of an “alternative autism treatment guinea pig,” so to speak. Parents, fearful as their child misses every single developmental milestone and worn out from trying to get their child to play with anything beside a plastic lid, are looking for immediate ways to help their child besides educational methods (like Applied Behavior Analysis or ABA). It’s also understandable that parents shy away from giving a young child psychotropic medications like Risperdal, which do not promise the specific results that alternative treatments often do and can have scary side-effects.
The growing investigation of whether Mark Geier should be allowed to practice medicine and offer untested autism treatments is a good sign. It’s an understatement to say that raising an autistic child is not without difficulties and stress. Families need guidance to figure out which treatments and therapies to try and which to steer clear of as they seek to do their best by a child with many challenges.
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Photo of an autistic child and teacher by Ministère du Travail, de l'Emploi et de la Santé