Attacking Autism with experimental treatments

By Karen Abernathy - bio | email

Autism is the fastest growing developmental disability in children. Many treatment plans include therapies like speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy, as well as alternative treatments like supplements and vitamins.

There's no cure for this often devastating disability, but experimental treatments are proving successful for some. These experimental, and sometimes controversial treatments are making headlines.

Julia Berle noticed her son Baxter went from a bubbly baby to an unresponsive toddler. She said the symptoms were "loss of speech, loss of eye contact, loss of socialization, loss of everything."

She knew he was in trouble.

"I knew what they [the doctors] were going to tell me, and I knew they were going to tell me there was no hope."

Baxter was diagnosed with autism.

"I didn't like the crystal ball. The doctors said, 'Your child may never talk. Your child may never get out of diapers. You may need to institutionalize him.'"

Julia pulled wheat and dairy from her son's diet to avoid the proteins gluten and casein, which she thought were harming his brain.

"When I pulled those things, he went into huge withdrawal. He had detox-like symptoms, but in 24 days, he started talking."

Biomedical Autism Physician Specialist Kurt Woeller says those results are not uncommon.

"As a basic remedy, that helps a large percentage of kids, a good 65 to 70 percent. The gluten, casein-free diet is a tried and true remedy."

It helped Baxter, but not enough. The next thing Julia tried is something many doctors call dangerous.

Chelation therapy uses a drug that binds to metals and other toxins, carrying them out of the body -- but it can also remove electrolytes and calcium, putting a child at risk for brain damage, cardiac arrest, liver and kidney damage.

Dr. David Childers, a Neurodevelopmental Pediatrician at University of Florida College of Medicine, says he is "adamantly opposed to chelation."

Julia tried it anyway.

"He had a great lead burden and a pretty huge mercury burden. We cleaned that stuff out, and he just got better and better and better and better," Julia said.

So much better that Baxter's doctor reversed his autism diagnosis. Little Baxter is talking and interacting now, and understands his illness pretty well for a toddler.

"I had autism. It's poison, but I don't have it anymore," Baxter said.

Mom Rebecca Estepp noticed her son, "went from a child that was healthy to a child that was constantly ill."

Rebecca used many of the same treatments for her son, Eric. Although she hasn't seen the same results, she does see improvement.

"He started feeling better. And then when he felt better, he could behave better. And when you can get a child with autism to behave, they can learn," Rebecca said.

Many pediatricians are against chelation because they say it has no research behind it. The National Institute of Mental Health recently canceled a proposed study on the effects because of the risks.

When autism symptoms started showing up in Mary Underhill's son James, she said,  "He just looked like he wasn't there anymore."

Mary turned to another experimental treatment for her son: an autism patch. It works by targeting a specific virus that some believe causes autism.

Research Director at Children's Mental Focus Foundation, Dr. Rick Hunt, says the patch works by "restoring the body's natural energetic or informational system."

He says the patch turns the immune system on to fight the virus. Other doctors are skeptical of the patch, but Mary doesn't care.

"It sounds crazy, but it's working. I see a big difference."

It's important to remember that what works for one, doesn't work for all.

Dr. Woeller says, "We know that, for many kids, their autism is reversible."

But many parents aren't giving up. Julia is thankful for the experimental treatments she credits with her son's recovery.

"We're moms. We're dads. We're parents. We'll never stop trying for our child."

As far as other treatments currently available, there is applied behavior analysis, or ABA, where a therapist works one-on-one with a child. ABA is the treatment with the most scientific support.

Other treatment options for autism include hyperbaric oxygen therapy and supplements like methyl-b-12, magnesium and folic acid.

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