The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation has charged an Illinois doctor, Dr. Anjum Usman, with “unprofessional, unethical and/or dishonorable conduct” in regard to her use alternative medical treatments for an autistic boy. The treatments described in the complaint have been widely promoted in the past decade by practitioners and families who claimed that such practices as chelation to remove poisonous heavy metals, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, secretin (a pancreatic hormone) and more had “cured” their children from autism. Books such as Karyn Seroussi’s 2002 Unraveling the Mystery of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders and Jenny McCarthy’s 2007 Louder Than Words: A Mother’s Journey in Healing Autism are only a few accounts claiming miraculous recoveries from autism thanks to alternative medical treatments.
The rationale for using such unproven biomedical treatments such as chelation, anti-fungal therapy and many more to “treat” autistic children rests on equally unproven theories about what causes autism. For instance, some proposed that children were “damaged” by substances in vaccines, such as a mercury-based preservative thimerosal, or by the vaccines (such as the MMR) themselves. Chelation, via powerful drugs and in other forms such as infrared saunas, was thought to be a way to remove “heavy metals,” as well as whatever was making a child autistic.
The complaint against Dr. Usman charges her with making false or misleading statements regarding the value of treatments, showing “extreme departure from rational medical judgment” and “abus[ing] the patient/physician relationship.” The complaint requests that her medical license be “revoked, suspended, placed on probation or otherwise disciplined” and was filed by the parents of an autistic boy who was diagnosed with mild to moderate autism in 2004.
Usman allegedly diagnosed the child with acalcium-to-zinc imbalance, yeast, dysbiosis, low zinc, heavy metal toxicity and abnormally high levels of aluminum, antimony, arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, nickel, silver, tin, titanium and selenium.
Treatments listed in the complaint include dietary restrictions; nearly three dozen vitamin, enzyme, mineral and other dietary supplements; two antifungal drugs; four chelators or detoxifying drugs; a hormone suppressor, and hyperbaric oxygen treatments, in which the child is shut inside a pressurized bag filled with extra oxygen.
“None of the treatments described above has been proven to influence the course of autism,” the complaint states. And yet Usman “made statements to (the boy’s) mother that the prescribed treatments had positive clinical benefits for children with autism, despite the lack of empirical research.”
At one point, the complaint alleges, Usman prescribed selenium supplements even though the boy’s levels were normal. She “continued to do so even when (the boy) eventually showed a high level,” according to the complaint.
Dr. Usman’s alternative medical treatments were the subject of a a 2009 Chicago Tribune investigation. Since my own son Charlie was diagnosed in 1999, we have heard about such treatments and took Charlie to a number of different biomedical practitioners when he was younger. We tried a number of supplements, did various kinds of testing, put Charlie on a special gluten-free casein-free diet for years and concluded that such treatments were not helping him and, in some ways, were detrimental.
Ultimately, I am glad that we tried some alternative treatments and met some practitioners, and that I attended a “Defeat Autism Now” conference run by the Autism Research Institute. Due to the internet, parents are much more likely to hear about such treatments and, in the desperate desire to help a child who doesn’t talk or may be banging their head on the furniture, are eager to try anything. Years of making sure that Charlie ate nothing with wheat or oatmeal or any dairy products have certainly made us very aware of how one’s mental and emotional state can be connected to how one’s stomach is feeling.
But while a special diet is a generally benign treatment to try, other treatments such as Dr. Usman used and that other practitioners continue to use require much more scrutiny. Too often, the use of alternative treatments on autistic children, many unable to communicate their internal physical states, has amounted simply to uncontrolled experimentation. We know more than a few families who have used such biomedical treatments and whose children, despite the claims of the practitioners, have not “recovered from autism” and have numerous challenges. The complaint against Dr. Usman for using alternative treatments that delivered far less than promised as far as “treating” autism may only be the first.
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