There are no approved medications to treat autism, but parents of autistic children continue to place their hopes on alternative treatments.

A new study was undertaken by the Childhood Autism Risk from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) and published in the Journal of Behavioral and Developmental Pediatrics. The study showed that among parents of 600 children between ages two and five with autism and developmental delays, 40 percent rely on alternative treatments an attempt to relieve some of their children's symptoms and prevent the progression of some of the condition's behavioral problems.

The use of complementary and alternative medicine, such as homeopathic remedies, mind-body medicine, melatonin and probiotics, was 10 percent greater than that among non-autistic kids. About 7 percent of autistic kids were placed on a special diet that parents believed could relieve autistic symptoms. Furthermore, about 4 percent of autistic children were using treatments that the study classified as potentially unsafe or unfounded in science, such as vitamin B-12 injections, and for this, the researchers recommended that pediatricians educate parents about the benefits and the risk of the different therapies available to them.

"Regardless of how families make these decisions, health care providers should proactively seek to learn what therapies are being used and engage families in frank discussions about the importance of understanding concepts such as the hierarchy of evidence and of making treatment decisions based on current knowledge of safety and efficacy," the study authors write.

"These findings emphasize the enormous and urgent need for effective treatments and for rigorous research that can identify them and verify their effectiveness and safety," said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, professor of public health sciences and principal investigator for the study. "Of course it is reasonable for parents to keep searching for ways to help their children, when there are few effective treatments and none that can help every child."

Despite this, experts still recommend turning to behavior-based therapies instead of alternative ones, because these were shown in some studies to be effective at lessening some of the symptoms of autism, and even probably reverse the changes in the brain, which contribute to the condition. 

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