Controversial Autism Treatment May Be Harmful

Up to one-third of parents of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD)—including autism, Asperger syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder—have tried nonmainstream treatments. Unfortunately, as many as 10% have turned to treatments that are potentially harmful, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Chelation therapy, which aims to rid the body of toxic metals such as mercury, falls into the latter category. A new journal article from Baylor University concluded that the treatment of ASD with chelation is not only unproven, but also risky.

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Insufficient Evidence

For the article, published online by Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, a team of researchers looked at the scientific evidence for and against using chelation to treat ASD. There wasn’t much to go on. The researchers found only five small studies that met minimal scientific standards, and even those studies had significant weaknesses in their design.

Of the five studies, four showed a mix of positive and negative outcomes in treated children. The fifth showed positive results, but it involved only a single child. The researchers deemed the scant evidence “insufficient”—the lowest level of certainty.

Other experts have reached the same conclusion. In 2011, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality issued a report on therapies for children with ASD, which found that research does not support using chelation for this purpose.

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More Harm than Good

Unproven benefits are only half the problem. There are also potentially serious risks.

In chelation therapy, the person being treated is given a chemical agent that’s supposed to bind with certain metals and eliminate them from the body. The chemicals used in the treatment have a wide range of potential side effects. According to the article’s authors, these may include fever, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, high or low blood pressure, hemorrhoids, metallic taste in the mouth, irregular heartbeats, and low calcium levels.

It’s not the first time an alarm has been sounded. Two years ago, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a stern warning to companies touting over-the-counter chelation products as treatments for autism and other conditions. At the time, an FDA medical officer noted that chelation can lead to dehydration, kidney failure, and even death.

In 2008, the National Institute of Mental Health halted plans for a clinical trial that would have tested chelation in children with ASD, citing safety concerns.

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Shaky Foundation

The underlying premise for treating ASD with chelation has also been called into question. The hypothesized link between ASD and metal poisoning has never been conclusively established.

Plus, mercury is often the metal targeted by the treatment. But according to the Autism Science Foundation, symptoms of mercury poisoning differ from those of ASD, making chelation an impractical way to target the core problems of autism.

In a statement about the new article, lead author Tonya Davis, PhD, an assistant professor of educational psychology at Baylor, sums up things this way: "My hope is that this research will help parents make informed choices when selecting treatments for their child with ASD. While I understand a parent's desire to try anything and everything that may help their child, as a researcher, it is difficult to watch a family spend time, money, and resources on interventions that research has found to be ineffective, or worse, potentially dangerous.”

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