Alternative Therapies for Autism: Exploring Holistic Health Approaches

Alternaleaf Team
Written by
Alternaleaf Team
Oct 1, 2022
Last updated:
May 21, 2024

As of 2015, statistics from the Australian Bureau reveal that approximately one in 150 Australians are diagnosed with autism, with most diagnoses occurring during childhood and impacting individuals throughout their lives.

While there is currently no cure for autism, many individuals are exploring diverse avenues to navigate life with their diagnosis. These approaches range from traditional therapies to innovative behavioural and occupational strategies, aiming to support individuals with autism in maximising their potential and quality of life. 

However, it's essential to recognise that autism is not solely a disability or disorder; rather, it represents a spectrum of unique strengths and abilities that contribute to the rich diversity of human experience. 

Let’s explore alternative therapies for autism through a lens that celebrates neurodiversity and emphasises the importance of embracing the strengths and capabilities of individuals within the autistic spectrum.

What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism isn't just a "disorder" anymore. We're starting to see it as a different way of thinking and experiencing the world. It kicks in early on and sticks around for life, affecting how people interact, talk, and understand things.

You might have heard about the "spectrum" in relation to autism. The word spectrum refers to the wide range of symptoms, from mild to severe. Some people can continue life as usual, while others need more help. No two cases are the same.

Autism affects more children than adults and more males than females.  While we observe more cases nowadays, the exact cause of autism remains unclear. Some experts think it's because we're paying more attention to it and doing more research. So, the more we learn, the better we can help autistic people.

Right now, there's no cure for autism. We focus on managing symptoms, developing skills, and giving support.

Symptoms of Autism

In early childhood, autism signs can look like a typical child’s development, which makes it hard to diagnose until around age two and a half to three. Sometimes, people aren't diagnosed until adulthood.

People with autism often struggle with social communication and interactions. They might repeat behaviours or have different ways of learning and moving.

There are many signs of autism, but some of the most common include:

  • Not making eye contact
  • Preferring to be alone
  • Not using common gestures like pointing or waving
  • Struggling to express needs and emotions
  • Repeating actions like walking on tip-toes or flapping arms
  • Feeling uncomfortable in social situations

No two cases are exactly alike, and there's no single test for autism. Doctors diagnose it by watching behaviour and doing different tests. However, because autism can manifest in various ways, affecting individuals differently, doctors often have to look more closely at each individual based on common signs and symptoms associated with autism.

Social Interaction Challenges

Individuals with autism may struggle with social interactions and communication. They might have difficulty maintaining eye contact, understanding social cues, or engaging in reciprocal conversations.

Repetitive Behaviours

Repetitive behaviours are often observed in individuals with autism. These repetitive behaviours may include hand-flapping, rocking, or spinning objects and adherence to strict routines or rituals.

Communication Difficulties

Many individuals with autism experience challenges in verbal and nonverbal communication. They may have delayed language development, difficulty initiating or sustaining conversations, or a tendency to echo words or phrases (echolalia).

Sensory Sensitivities

Sensory sensitivities are common in autism, with individuals often experiencing heightened or reduced sensitivity to sensory stimuli. For example, sensitivity to sounds, lights, textures, tastes, or smells can lead to discomfort or distress in specific environments.

Restricted Interests and Activities

Individuals with autism often exhibit intense interest in specific topics or activities. They may become deeply engrossed in a particular subject, hobby, or collection, displaying extensive knowledge and focus on these interests.

Difficulty with Changes and Transitions

People with autism may struggle with changes in routines or unexpected transitions. They may become upset or anxious when faced with unfamiliar situations or disruptions to their established routines.

Unusual Motor Movements

Some individuals with autism display unusual motor movements, such as repetitive body movements (stereotypy), unusual postures, or atypical gait patterns.

Recognising these signs and symptoms is crucial for early identification and intervention, enabling individuals with autism to receive the support and resources they need to thrive.

Diagnosing Autism

Getting an autism diagnosis means seeing a specialist, such as a paediatrician, psychiatrist, or psychologist. If a doctor thinks someone might have autism, they'll send them to a specialist for a check-up.

Here's what happens during the diagnosis:

Step 1: Chat and Review

The specialist talks with the person and their family, examining their medical history, growth, and behaviour. They might also ask the family questions to learn more about how the person communicates and interacts with others.

Step 2: Tests and Assessments

The specialist does different tests to check how the person communicates, thinks, and behaves. These tests help the specialist understand what's happening and if it might be autism.

Step 3: Meeting the Criteria

To receive an autism diagnosis, a person must meet specific criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Meeting the criteria for autism means having long-lasting problems with social communication, particular interests, repetitive behaviours, and sensory sensitivities. These symptoms must have been present since childhood and significantly impact the person's life.

Step 4: Classification Levels

The specialist assigns a classification level based on the level of support the person requires.

  • Level 1: Low levels of support to navigate social situations and manage daily challenges.
  • Level 2: Medium or substantial support due to more pronounced difficulties in social communication and adaptive functioning.
  • Level 3: High or severe impairment that requires intensive, ongoing support to meet their basic needs and navigate daily life.

Step 5: Comprehensive Assessment

Sometimes, the specialist performs more tests, such as checking speech and language, thinking skills, and behaviour in different places.

It's important to know that autism is a complex condition, and each person is different. That's why it's essential to have a thorough check-up by a qualified specialist to ensure the diagnosis is correct and to find the best ways to help.

Causes of Autism

Autism is a complex condition, and there are likely many reasons why it happens. While we're still learning, most cases seem linked to genes and sometimes environmental factors.

Here's what we know:

  • Genes Matter: Autism is often linked to our genes, like our body's instructions. If someone in your family has autism, you might be more likely to have it, too.
  • Other Conditions: Some conditions, like Rett syndrome, tuberculosis sclerosis, and Fragile X syndrome, raise the chances of having autism or similar symptoms. These conditions can make it challenging to do everyday things.
  • Global Impact: Autism can affect people from all backgrounds, no matter where they live or how much money they have.

While we're still uncovering the causes of autism, understanding these factors can help us support people with autism and their families better.

Early Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder  

Box of puzzle pieces and paper flowers
Families are increasingly exploring alternative treatments for autism spectrum disorder, including cannabis.

Getting assistance early is crucial for children with autism. If you suspect your child might have autism, it's essential to consult your doctor as soon as possible. Early intervention can significantly impact a child's development, even if the signs of autism are subtle.

Recognising the Signs

Understanding the signs of autism at different ages can be beneficial:

  • Babies with autism may seem disinterested in others, avoiding eye contact and not engaging in typical social behaviours like smiling or pointing.
  • Toddlers with autism might not respond to their names, exhibit repetitive behaviours like lining up toys, and struggle with communication and social interaction.
  • Older kids with autism may find it challenging to make friends, understand social cues, follow instructions, and exhibit unconventional behaviours.

Adults and Autism

For adults who receive an autism diagnosis later in life, the challenges may differ. Many adults with autism experience feelings of not fitting in, struggle with social interactions, employment, and self-esteem, and may also deal with anxiety or depression.

Even though there's no cure for autism, researchers are always looking for new ways to help manage its symptoms. Working closely with doctors and other experts to figure out the best plan for each person is vital to making life with autism as good as it can be.

Approaches To Treatment

When considering ways to support individuals with autism, it's essential to explore various treatment options. These can broadly be divided into traditional treatments, which are well-established and widely used, and alternative treatments, which encompass newer or less conventional approaches gaining attention.

Traditional Treatment

Traditional treatments for autism are those that have been extensively studied and are commonly recommended by healthcare professionals. These interventions focus on addressing core symptoms of autism and improving overall functioning. Some of the most widely recognised traditional treatments include:

  1. Learning in Steps (Applied Behaviour Analysis): This learning method breaks big tasks into smaller steps. It helps people learn good behaviours and deal with difficult ones by giving rewards and practising. It often teaches social skills, talking, and everyday tasks.
  1. Help with Talking (Speech Therapy): Sometimes, people with autism have trouble talking and understanding language. Speech therapy helps with this. Therapists use different things like pictures, sign language, or special tools to make it easier for people with autism to communicate.
  1. Learning Life Skills (Occupational Therapy): Occupational therapy helps with everyday tasks like taking care of yourself, using your hands for small things, and handling different feelings and sensations. It can include activities like writing, getting dressed, and dealing with things that feel strange.
  1. Learning to Socialise (Social Skills Training): Social skills training teaches people with autism how to interact with others and better understand social situations. It's about making friends, understanding social cues, and dealing with sensory issues.
  1. Helping with Thoughts and Feelings (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy): This therapy helps with anxiety and sadness. It teaches people how to handle negative thoughts, relax, and deal with problems in a healthy way.

Alternative Treatment

Alternative treatments for autism encompass a wide range of approaches that may complement traditional interventions or be pursued independently. While these treatments vary in evidence base and effectiveness, some families find them beneficial in managing specific symptoms or improving overall wellbeing.

Some alternative therapies include:

  1. Dietary Interventions: Some families try special diets, like ones without gluten or casein, to see if they can help with autism symptoms. While some people say they see improvements in behaviour and thinking, scientists are still determining if these diets make a big difference. More research is needed to find out.
  1. Sensory-Based Therapies: Therapies that focus on the senses, like playing with different textures or riding horses, aim to help with sensory issues common in autism. While these therapies might help with things like calming down or feeling better, we don't have enough proof yet to say if they help with the main symptoms of autism. We need more big studies to find out for sure.
  1. Music and Art Therapy: Some people think music or art can help with communication and emotions in autism. While some studies show promising results, like people feeling more engaged or less anxious, we still need more research to know if these therapies work well for autism.
  1. Mind-Body Interventions: Practices like yoga, meditation, or mindfulness are getting attention for helping with stress and emotions in autism. Even though small studies show some good things, like better self-control or fewer repetitive behaviours, we need more significant, detailed studies to understand if these practices can help with autism.
  1. Alternative Medicine: Alternative therapies are on the rise, even in children. A placebo-controlled study showed favourable results for specific holistic medication in autism treatment. New research has also demonstrated a possible link between deficiencies in particular body systems and autism.

Individuals and families considering alternative therapies should consult with qualified healthcare professionals and carefully evaluate the available evidence to make informed decisions about treatment options for autism spectrum disorder.

Living with Autism

Living with autism presents unique challenges, but with the proper support and a personalised approach, individuals can lead fulfilling lives. Understanding the diverse nature of autism and exploring a range of treatment options are essential steps towards thriving with autism.

Accessing Alternative Treatment for Autism

Trying out new approaches can offer fresh possibilities for managing autism symptoms and improving overall wellbeing. Families often explore alternative treatments, such as cannabis oil or activities like yoga and art therapy, to complement traditional interventions.

Creating Personalised Plans

Understanding that each person with autism is unique is vital for creating personalised treatment plans. Age, symptom severity, and personal preferences play a significant role in determining the most effective interventions.

Taking a Holistic View of Health

Alternative therapies often consider overall wellbeing, including emotions, social life, and thinking, not just physical symptoms. Considering these factors, individuals and families can enhance their overall quality of life.

Empowering Individuals and Families

Trying various treatments gives people and their families more control over their health. By making informed choices and actively participating in treatment decisions, they can find approaches that resonate with their values and preferences.

Fostering Collaboration

Talking openly and working alongside people with autism, their families, and healthcare providers is crucial for effective treatment. By working together, they can ensure that treatment decisions are informed, personalised, and aligned with the individual's needs and goals.

Misunderstandings about Autism

Misconceptions about autism can lead to unfair ideas and make it challenging for people with autism to get the support they need. Setting the record straight is critical to making sure everyone understands and accepts people with autism.

Embracing Neurodiversity

Autism is part of what we call "neurodiversity," which acknowledges that our brains develop differently. This term also includes conditions like dyslexia and ADHD. It's crucial to recognise and celebrate the diversity within the neurodivergent community, avoiding generalisations and embracing each individual's unique strengths.

Understanding the Spectrum

Autism isn't a one-size-fits-all condition but rather a broad spectrum with diverse characteristics and challenges. Attempting to categorise autism as "mild," "moderate," or "severe" can oversimplify the complexity of the spectrum and may not accurately reflect the level of support individuals need. Instead, we should recognise the individuality and variability of experiences within the autism community.

Clearing up Myths

Some important truths about autism include:

  • Vaccination does NOT cause autism.
  • Specific diets do NOT cause autism.
  • People with autism might find socialising hard but still want friends.
  • People with autism feel emotions, even if they show them in different ways.
  • Most people with autism can learn and improve with the right help.
  • Behaviour can change, and people with autism can grow.
  • Autism is NOT because of how someone was raised or their parents.
  • Not everyone with autism has exceptional skills, like in the movie "Rain Man."
  • Not everyone with autism also has an intellectual disability.
  • Autism is a condition related to brain development, not a mental illness. However, people with autism might have higher rates of mental health issues like feeling sad or anxious.

By sharing the truth about autism simply and clearly, we can break down stereotypes and make sure everyone feels accepted and supported.

For More Information and Support:

If you or someone you know is affected by autism and would like more information or support, consider reaching out to reputable organisations and support groups. They offer valuable resources, guidance, and community support to individuals and families coping with autism. Here are some trusted sources you can explore:

  1. Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect): Visit Aspect for information, support services, and resources tailored to individuals with autism and their families across Australia.
  2. Autism Awareness Australia: Explore Autism Awareness Australia for educational resources, awareness campaigns, and support programs to increase understanding and acceptance of autism.
  3. Autism CRC: Learn about the latest research, initiatives, and collaborative efforts in autism research and innovation at Autism CRC.

These organisations offer a wealth of information, assistance, and community connections to help individuals with autism lead fulfilling lives and access the support they need.

Remember, reaching out for support is a positive step towards understanding and managing autism. You're not alone, and resources are available to assist you every step of the way.

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