With the rise of autism in the United States, and with no known causes or cures, parents are turning to alternative treatments like acupuncture and Chinese medicine to help with their child’s symptoms. Today we hear from two acupuncturists on how Chinese medicine can help.
The Rise in Autism
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 59 children in the United States has been diagnosed with autism. It can affect a child’s communication and behavior, and it occurs about four times more among boys than girls.
Conventional therapies such as drug therapy, speech and language therapy, and sensory integration may help reduce symptoms and support learning and development. However, they can be limited in addressing underlying medical conditions that autistic children have, like digestive problems, allergies, and autoimmune conditions.
Studies have found that acupuncture had positive results for autistic children.
What Is Chinese Medicine?
Kimberly Fritz: Really acupuncture falls under what I call the umbrella of traditional Chinese medicine. So you got traditional Chinese medicine as the umbrella and then under that the little spokes are acupuncture, Chinese herbalism, qigong, tui-na, which is a form of a Chinese medical massage, cupping, moxibustion, Chinese food therapy, lifestyle counseling, just a whole host of things that are our tools to provide any patient with comprehensive health care. I always tell my patients that really it can treat anything. It’s really more of an evaluation of how effective it can treat it and how quickly it can treat it for some people.
I tell people that, when it comes to trauma care, Western medicine does excel … but when it comes to maybe preventative care and chronic management, I think the traditional Chinese medicine excels because we aren’t trying to provide a band-aid fix. We’re trying to get to the root of the problem. Or in the case of prevention, we’re trying to prevent the patient from needing us. We don’t want patients to need us. — Kimberly Fritz
Treating Autism with Chinese Medicine
Kimberly Fritz: My son has severe autism, so obviously I treat him and have treated him since we received the diagnosis. I think it’s very effective in treating the root of the problem. And the root of the problem is biomedical. A lot of people think that autism is a mental illness and it’s not. It’s a biomedical problem.
For example, one of the prevalent, I guess side effects you could call it or symptoms that go concurrently with autism are GI problems, stomach issues, whether it’s irritable bowel or food sensitivities or food allergies. Well, those are very treatable by Chinese medical principals. — Kimberly Fritz
Kimberly Fritz: Can Chinese medicine be effective in negating some of the things that go along with autism? Yes, I’ve seen it and believe that. My son would never tolerate the actual acupuncture … so acupressure was something that I would do for him. Some tui-na, which I had said earlier was a form of Chinese medical massage, I would do for him. Chinese herbal medicine was a dominant part of his care as well as Chinese food therapy.
Start with Digestion
David Allen: And the first thing probably is going to be digestion. So one of the things that Western medicine has really readily identified in autism is that kids who make dietary changes–so the parents take them off gluten or take them off dairy and put them on these more restrictive diets–those kids seem to improve. But then the question becomes, well, why is that the case? And from a Chinese medicine perspective, it may be that we need to strengthen the digestive system. And by strengthening the digestive system we can help them. Because there’s some idea around what might be going on with autism, how the digestion and brain function might be interacting.
Digestion May Contribute to Brain Inflammation
David Allen: So one of the overarching problems in autism is that all of these kids have a lot of what they would sort of call brain inflammation … one of the working theories around this, at least in terms of the relationship between digestion and brain inflammation, is it may be that there may be an aspect of this where if the digestion is weak, which children’s digestions are kind of always a little bit weak … and if their digestive system doesn’t break down those proteins into their individual amino acids, then those half-digested proteins get into the bloodstream. And then when those half-digested proteins get into the bloodstream, your body’s immune system doesn’t know what to do with that basically.
And so what we want to do then is–the acupuncture and the herbs–we want to normalize their immune function. We want to normalize their nervous system function, and we want to try to reduce that inflammation that’s happening generally. — David Allen
Misconceptions About Acupuncture
David Allen: So actually performing the acupuncture is very easy. It’s painless for kids. Often the parents have sort of prepared the kid like, oh, you’re gonna get needles. And the kids are a little freaked out, but it’s actually very easy to do. So the first thing is that the acupuncture is actually very easy and painless to administer … any acupuncturist who has spent a little time working on kids, they’ll always have other methods.
Are There Any Side-Effects?
David Allen: What I like about acupuncture is it works or it doesn’t. There’s no in between there. It’s not like they’re going to cause some bad thing, like they’re going to get a headache or have insomnia for a week. It doesn’t happen like that. So they just tend to improve and then no real side effects. And what’s really nice actually about acupuncture and what’s really nice about working with autistic kids is you usually see changes within a couple of weeks. It’s not like six months and a bag full of supplements, and three shopping bags full of expensive supplements later maybe something will happen.
My experience is that, with kids, they actually change very quickly. They start to improve quite quickly. So even within a week or two, just one or two treatments, I would typically expect at least to see maybe a little more attempt at vocalization or maybe sleep improves or maybe what you could call compliance. — David Allen
Press play to find out how these acupuncturists use Chinese medicine to treat symptoms related to autism.