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Complementary and Alternative Medicine on the Rise for Children with Autism

By Caitlin O’Toole

The term “CAM” seems to be gaining popularity these days. And interestingly, an increasing number of parents of children with autism seem to be turning to CAM for help in the treatment of some symptoms of the disorder.

But what exactly is CAM?

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The term CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) is, according to the NIH National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) website, is “often used to mean the array of health care approaches with a history of use or origins outside of mainstream medicine, [and it is] actually hard to define and may mean different things to different people.”

CAM falls into two subgroups, the website says: natural products, often sold as dietary supplements; and mind and body practices (such as yoga, meditation, movement, deep breathing, and many others).

In an interview with NAMI, Robert Hendren, D.O., Professor and Vice Chair, Director, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, University of California, San Francisco whose studies have included “natural” products such as omega-3s, pro-biotics, and melatonin said it does appear that CAM is on the rise.

“There’s an increasing acceptability,” he said. “People also want to start off trying things that they think of as milder and having fewer side effects.”

One of the CAM treatments from the mind and body category that parents are turning to is yoga for their children with autism.

A 2012 study, led by Dr. Kristie Patten Koenig, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy at NYU, found that children with autism spectrum disorder who did yoga at their elementary school behaved better than kids with autism who weren't doing yoga.

The study, which was conducted at a public elementary school in the Bronx section of New York City, had the kids follow a specific routine each morning, five days a week, for 17 minutes, for 16 weeks. The routine had the kids take their mats out, breathe deeply, assume yoga poses, tense and relax muscles, and sing. The researchers compared the kids in the program, which was called “Get Ready to Learn,” with a control group of kids doing a standard morning routine. Teachers said that the kids doing yoga exhibited significantly fewer problematic behaviors overall.

“We found that the kids in our study group showed less irritability, a decrease in a lot of the maladaptive behaviors associated with autism, and, anecdotally, the teachers reported that they were able to transition into their day much better,” Dr. Koenig told NAMI in an interview.

“Kids were really a part of setting up the room, and getting the yoga mats down. It was part of their routine,” she said. “Kids that are autistic do really well if they have that structure. We watched the tone of the class change as they started their yoga you could just see that it produced a totally different atmosphere in the class.”

Dr. Koenig said that yoga programs are being implemented in schools across the country more and more and that the kids who benefit do not necessarily have autism.

“[Yoga] addresses a couple of issues,” she said. “Everything from obesity to getting kids moving more to more attentive and mindfulness in school so it’s becoming more and more popular.”

Dr. Koenig cautioned that yoga should be thought of as a complementary treatment rather than an alternative one.

“There’s a strong body of evidence for a variety of conditions that suggest that yoga and mindfulness and meditation is helpful,” Dr. Koenig said. “But more from the complementary standpoint.”

Dr. Hendren, like Dr. Koenig, also believes in the full body/mind approach.

“I think it’s important to do all of these things with behavioral treatments like ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) and speech and language and OT,” Dr. Hendren said, “so it doesn’t take the place of a complete treatment package. You need to have that comprehensive treatment to get the best result.”

Dr. Hendren also said that he believes the terms “complementary” and “alternative” are sometimes misunderstood and therefore, overlooked.

“There are an increasing number of studies that some of these things are of benefit,” he said. “The terms ‘complementary and alternative’ give us an image that somehow they are not ‘real’ or they are not fully a good treatment but many are helping the body be more resilient. So I think if we have ways of making the body healthier -- that’s good and not necessarily CAM.”


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