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A Drug-Free Approach for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

(This article is re-published, with permission, from the Fall, 2005 issue of Homeopathy Today. Contact homeopathic.org for subscription information.)

Children and adults with Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism spectrum disorder, often feel like Valentine Michael Smith, the main character in Robert Heinlein's classic science-fiction novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. The last human survivor of a failed expedition to Mars, and raised from infancy by Martians, Smith possesses superior intelligence but has the social and communication skills of an alien toddler. The following excerpt describes some of the challenges he faces soon after returning to Earth as an adult.

None of his thinkings [sic] had been in Earth symbols. Simple English he had freshly learned to speak, but much less easily than a Hindu uses it to trade with a Turk. Smith used English as one might use a code book, with tedious and imperfect translation for each symbol. Now his thoughts, pure Martian abstractions from half a million years of wildly alien culture, traveled so far from any human experience as to be utterly untranslatable...

Strangers In A Strange Land

For Valentine Michael Smith and for those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the world may seem an incomprehensible place, an alien planet where one is held against one's will, without even a guidebook. Imagine what it is like to be highly intelligent, but to continually misunderstand facial expressions, gestures, and social cues. Imagine further what it is like to miss out on the subtle nuances in communication that are so fundamental to expressing humor, sarcasm, frustration, or sympathy, while those closest to you throw up their hands in exasperation at decisions that seem completely logical to you. Imagine how challenging it would be to live this way for one day, for even one hour, without becoming confused, depressed, anxious, frustrated, or angry. People with ASD populate this alien world every day, day after day. Adapting to the social world depends on their learning effective communication and social skills, understanding how differently those around them think and reason, and expressing feelings that don't always make sense to them.

What Is Autism?

Autism is described as a "spectrum disorder" to signify characteristics shared among a group with a common diagnosis, but who differ considerably along a continuum in manifestation and severity of those core characteristics. From classical autism to high-functioning Asperger Syndrome, ASD isolates, robbing a child of his ability to communicate or grasp the more subtle, non-verbal nuances of social interaction most people take for granted. Below are the core traits of ASD:

  • Blindness to social cues
  • Communication problems
  • Restricted repertoire of interests
  • Perseverative (repetitive) behaviors
  • Extreme need for structure and routine
  • Difficulties with gross motor skills

The impact of ASD goes beyond difficulties with communication, social interaction and repetitive behaviors, however. These children often have trouble with sensory processing; gastrointestinal inflammation and food sensitivities; connective tissue laxity; problems with muscle tone, posture, coordination and autonomic reflexes; and a compromised immune system. Additionally, 65% of children diagnosed with ASD have a secondary, dual diagnosis such as depression, anxiety, Attention Deficit Disorder, Tourette's Syndrome, tics, or insomnia.

Epidemic Of Autism

Current research indicates ASD has become an epidemic. In 1999, the California Department of Developmental Services issued a report indicating a 273% increase in autism rates between 1987 and 1998. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported the rate of ASD is now one in every 166 children. The implications of this are staggering: autism is on the rise, and we don't conclusively know why.

Homeopathy For Kids With ASD

Homeopathy individualizes treatment like no other medicine, and this is what makes it an ideal form of intervention for children with ASD. Because ASD has a global impact on a child's ability to function, it requires a therapeutic approach that individualizes treatment and addresses the totality of a child's symptoms. In ASD cases, we typically find a wealth of individualizing characteristics on the physical, mental and emotional levels to narrow down the choice of possible homeopathic remedies. The more unusual the child, the easier it is to help him with homeopathy.

The homeopathic interview is a perfect opportunity to talk about the child's special interests or "grand passions." Even more than the background information parents may give, hearing the child talk about what fascinates him, observing his gestures and body language, and listening for impassioned tones of voice can lead a homeopath directly to the right medicine. Every word the child utters is of significance to us, particularly words or language that are unique. Whereas parents, teachers, and caregivers may roll their eyes if they hear even once more about the cube root of 4096, our eyes light up, and we record the words of the child feverishly, trying not to miss a single word.

Homeopathy is gentle medicine for super-sensitive kids. Many ASD children are highly sensitive to prescription drugs, foods, and other substances. Since the ingredients in homeopathic remedies are so highly diluted, allergic reactions, sensitivities, or even side effects are rare. Homeopathy is one of the gentlest forms of medicine known. A few children do react adversely in some way to homeopathic remedies, but virtually all such reactions can be minimized or eliminated by an alternative form of dosing, such as LM potencies or plussed remedies.

Highly motivated parents are a homeopath's dream. Parents of children with ASD tend to be highly motivated to find help for their kids, willing to go to any extent to help their children, including searching for any treatment that can turn around their youngsters' symptoms and disabilities. They are committed to their child's treatment and well-being for the long haul.

Challenges of Homeopathic Treatment

Propelled by public awareness and growing evidence that early intervention is important for a successful outcome, parents are inclined to leave no stone unturned in seeking out treatment for their children. As a result, it isn't uncommon for a child to be undergoing multiple interventions simultaneously, such as chelation therapy, glutathione supplements, social skills groups, Applied Behavioral Analysis, hyperbaric oxygen, chiropractic, and dietary interventions. This can pose a challenge for homeopathic treatment; using too many therapies simultaneously can make it confusing to know to what extent each of them is working. Generally, we recommend that once a new homeopathic medicine is prescribed, you wait a couple of months before introducing a new intervention in order to adequately evaluate the effect of the homeopathy. Additionally, it is preferable to avoid adding new interventions within eight weeks of commencing homeopathic treatment.

Working with ASD children requires a flexible case-taking approach. Because these children have varying communication styles, case-taking needs to be tailored to the patient. For example, children with ASD are often very literal, so employing homeopath Divya Chhabra's "free association" method probably won't bear fruit. Often, engaging these kids in a discussion of their special interest will provide a useful window into how they perceive the world.

Bullied And On The Sidelines

When we first met Johan, he was 11 years old and on Ritalin. Fifth grade had gotten off to a rocky start for him, and by mid-winter it hadn't become any easier. Johan's mom aptly described him as "eccentric," and this became readily apparent as we interviewed him. Johan's behaviors and interactions with other children either alienated or "grossed out" his peers, leaving him on the social sidelines. Like many children with ASD, Johan was an easy target for bullying and teasing because of his differences and inability to pick up on his classmates' social cues. As a result, he would occasionally return home sad and bruised, following fights with the other children.

Johan's movements were a bit uncoordinated, his language overly formal, and his voice tone peculiar. Furthermore, he would laugh at inappropriate moments, and the quality of the laughter was unnerving and awkward.

His mom explained, "The school says that he invades his neighbor's space. He has no awareness of social boundaries or unspoken rules. He'll talk really loud, even when he's right in front of your face. Johan doesn't seem to have a sense of normal conversation. Sometimes he'll start a conversation and neglect to give any context or reference for what he's saying."

"He is truthful to a fault!" his mom bemoaned. "When other kids provoke him to the point of defending himself, and he is caught, he will explain everything to the teacher, fully expecting her to believe him. When that does not happen, he doesn't feel listened to and becomes sad."

When Johan first walked into our consultation room, he immediately began to investigate the room and its contents. "I feel like no one likes me, not even my parents. People are on me. No one at school talks with me or wants to play with me and I feel sad a lot," Johan explained. His mom confirmed this, and was prompted, in part, to make an appointment with us because Johan had been recently talking about suicide.

I Can Feel Animals' Pain

Johan felt enormous compassion for animals. One day during recess, two boys were threatening to squish a worm. Happening upon the scene, Johan exclaimed, "Hey! Wait! Worms are life. Killing one worm could change the whole future of a tree! And trees help us live." This complex logic was lost on the boys, so he swooped down, grabbed the worm, and dashed off. The two boys gave chase, and as Johan yelled over his shoulder, "I won't let you kill this worm," he carried the worm to safety.

"I am very sensitive to animals hurting or bleeding," Johan continued. Once, when he was watching an episode of Animal Planet with his father, the program's biologists were attempting to net a manta ray suffering from a damaged flipper. In the process of netting the ray, the flipper was torn off. Johan immediately fainted. With a loud clunk, his head hit the kitchen table. "It affects me deeply when an animal gets hurt. It hurts me on the inside and outside. I'm really sensitive to that kind of stuff," Johan explained.

His mother shared that Johan didn't speak in complete sentences until he was six years old. He routinely had trouble falling asleep at night. Additionally, he experienced recurring headaches. Johan described the pain as a tight band stretching from ear to ear across his forehead.

Exceptional Features

Johan's understanding of social cues seriously undermined his ability to mesh with his peers. This left him feeling sad and on the fringe during recess. His language was considerably delayed, and his speech was peculiar and odd. Johan's grand passions had changed over the years, but most recently, Bionicles (Lego superhero toys) had become his favorite pastime. Johan's impaired understanding of social cues, delayed and odd speech, and fixation with a grand passion are traits common to children with ASD.

We found the intensity of Johan's sensitivity to others' pain, and his compassion for suffering animals striking. His ability to empathize with an animal to the point of fainting because he "felt their pain, inside and out," was truly remarkable! The homeopathic remedy that best fit Johan was the beautiful yellow water lily, Nuphar luteum. Children needing this medicine exhibit great moral sensibility. They can experience acute pain on witnessing the suffering of animals. Nuphar luteum is also used to treat the type of headache Johan described: a pressing band-like pain across the forehead. We gave Johan a single dose of Nuphar luteum, 200C.

Gradual But Steady Progress

Over the next three months after taking his homeopathic medicine, Johan's chief concerns improved steadily. He reported feeling more patient with the other kids at school, and he felt that he was getting along better with his classmates. When asked how he felt the homeopathic medicine had helped him, he answered, "It's helping me make 'half' friends." Johan's mom noted that he seemed to respond faster when addressed: "He is more engaged, wanting to be involved in discussions and activities that don't normally interest him. His grades have improved, and he is more on task."

During his first office visit, six weeks after the initial consultation, Johan expressed a new concern, "I feel nervous about something, but I don't know what it is. I feel like I did something wrong." In spite of this sentiment, Johan admitted that he was feeling happier in general. The homeopathic medicine had moved Johan in the right direction. Although the changes were gradual, they were encouraging. With homeopathic treatment, the direction toward balance and health is more important than the pace. We opted not to re-dose at this point.

During our next visit with Johan, three months after the initial visit, he confided that sleep had become more difficult because he was awake worrying about the next day at school. We gave another dose of the Nuphar, 200C, and Johan's healing process accelerated further over the next two months.

During our next visit, Johan announced that he felt more "laid back" and "cool with the world." He said he felt more able to "leave things behind" and that everything was going better with other kids. "People don't mind me being around them now," he commented. Johan added that he had been feeling "more mellow" and not as worried. The feeling of being "nervous about something" had dissolved.

Johan's mother confirmed the progress. "He's definitely doing a lot better. A tenfold improvement!" She was pleased to report that Johan had not expressed any suicidal thoughts since starting homeopathic treatment. At this point, his parents decided to take him off of Ritalin, under the supervision of the prescribing physician.

Johan's progress continued over the next couple of months. "I haven't had any nightmares since the very first dose," he informed us. "I have made two new friends and it's easy to talk with them. The first time we played was the most fun time I've ever had!" Johan assured us that he had not been feeling worried or nervous and was much happier. His mom agreed with her son's observations.

During our next visit, Johan informed us that his sleep problems had returned. "I am thinking about how my next day will go," he explained. He had continued to make friends more easily. "The first day of school, I made a new friend. It's as simple as one, two, three! And I think that it is because of my weirdness that they like me!" Because his remedy had helped with his sleep in the past, we decided to re-dose with Nuphar, 200C.

During our last visit, nine months after starting treatment, Johan's mom exclaimed, "he has been having his best days ever in school!" Shortly after this visit, Johan's family moved and discontinued treatment. Nonetheless we've checked in with Johan by phone, and two years later, he continues to do well. It warms the heart to see this delightfully compassionate child feel good about himself. Now, thanks to homeopathy, he continues to make friends and is no longer on the social fringe.

[Portions of this article are excerpted from A Drug-Free Approach to Asperger Syndrome and Autism: Homeopathic Care for Exceptional Kids, Co-authored by Judyth Reichenberg-Ullman, ND, LCSW, DHANP, Robert Ullman, ND, DHANP, and Ian Luepker, ND, DHANP.]

Biography Of Ian R. Luepker, N.D., DHANP