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Why Is My Child with Autism Doing So Much Better?

By November 10, 2008

Tom was diagnosed with PDD-NOS (a diagnosis on the autism spectrum) when he was three and a half. Like most parents, I spent a lot of time looking for and trying out different treatment approaches. We tried diets and supplements; medications; Floortime; dance therapy; music therapy, occupational therapy; sensory integration therapy; physical therapy; speech therapy; social skills therapy; behavior therapy; drama therapy.

Most of the treatments we tried seemed to help for a little while. Then, the improvement seemed to ebb and slow. Then we'd try something new (while also continuing with the whole battery of therapies offered free of charge by the school district).

All the while, Tom continued to grow and thrive. He learned to read and write. He became potty trained. He learned to dress himself, take his own bath, add, subtract, and multiply. He stopped bolting out of rooms and flinging toys at other children. He began asking contentful questions, and expressing empathy for others. He started playing the clarinet and the piano, and performing in recitals. He joined a bowling league and won a trophy. Of course, Tom is still autistic. But without a doubt, he has come a long, long way.

The big question is - why? Did any of these therapies make the big difference? If they did, then why does Tom continue to grow and thrive even without them? Would he have done just as well if we'd simply parented him well and homeschooled him - or would he be doing much better now with a different approach?

Just yesterday, I read an article in which parents attributed their child's amazing success to a combination of chiropractic manipulation, hippotherapy (horseback riding) and homeopathic detox. So far as I know, no credible source supports the idea that autism can be effectively treated by a combination of these interventions - and it's very, very hard for me to believe that they had much impact. But the child improved - radically. And his parents are sure they know why.

I don't know this family or their practitioners personally. But unless they are most unusual, I doubt that they spent the time or money to hire a professional team of evaluators to benchmark each area of ability and then retest after each therapy to check on progress. In fact, as the article describes, "After six months [of chiropractic and homeopathic treatment], the Smiths saw major improvement and a glimmer of Colton coming back. “He would come and sit on your lap and look at you. It was huge because he hadn't been doing that at all...” Were six months of chiropractic and homeopathic treatments really behind these changes? Or was Colton just developmentally ready to connect with his parents?

It seems like a no-brainer that the vast majority of children with autism grow, develop, and build skills over time. But the question of just why any individual child progresses - over any particular period of time - is often quite mysterious.

November 10, 2008 at 3:50 pm
(1) Jill says:

How old is Tom now?

November 10, 2008 at 3:58 pm
(2) autism says:

Tom is 12 and a half – his birthday’s in July.


November 10, 2008 at 4:04 pm
(3) Jill says:

My son, too was diagnosed with pdd-nos at 3. He’s 6 now and some days I find it hard to imagine that things will get better. Other days I find it hard to believe that he was ever diagnosed in the first place. I hope one day I’m able to “look back” on these days with a different perspective

November 10, 2008 at 6:11 pm
(4) Sandy says:

I myself too am not sure which did it for my son, the combo of it all or just one intervention. My son started out non verbal and severe autism. All I ever chose for him was school special ed, and private O.T and S.T along with RDI. My son has come a long way to being verbal and holding conversations, however academically, he is behind his peers except for in math.

I think my child progressed at his own rate. None of it happened over night however.

There are some things I’d never choose for my child, like a chiropractor. I have some severe spine/ neck issues that a chiropractor has helped to avoid a back brace when younger and surgery as I’m older and I just cant imagine cracking a bone or two unless it was out of whack. My mom has the same spine and neck issues as I do, and often her adjustments don’t even work.

November 10, 2008 at 11:10 pm
(5) marie says:

I worked with autistic teenagers for almost ten years and know that some individuals with autism do improve and some actually get worse in their teenage years (once their hormones “kick in”).
I can tell you that I personally have had great success with a Cincinnati chiropractor (Dr. Pitman at http://www.familytreecc.com ) treating my son’s ASD symptoms. He utilized NAET (naet.com) to eliminate his food allergies as well as supplements that helped his body detox. The results have been amazing. The cost of Dr. Pitman’s entire treatment was comparable to one visit to a DAN doctor, and it was much more effective.

November 10, 2008 at 11:28 pm
(6) Joan says:

My son will be 13 this week and I have to say that he has made steady progress since his diagnosis. The early years were torturous, haircuts and nail trimmings were impossible. Groceries store out of the question and going to a restaurant was only a dream.

Now, he happily takes part in all of the above (except the nail-trimming, that is one that he merely tolerates). I don’t know if its the Speech Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Social Skills programs, Swim lessons, Gymnastics clases, Community Integration program or just plain growing up. He has no gastro-intestinal or food allergies and is probably the most healthy of our family of 4.

Maybe some autistic people are just like the rest of us, it just takes them a little longer to get used to this world…and ours theirs.

November 11, 2008 at 10:11 pm
(7) AutismNewsBeat says:

My son who has autism has improved remarkably over the last 10 years, and he’s never seen a chiropractor, or been detoxed, or been placed on a special diet. He’s never been close to a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, or seen a chelationist’s needle. The only DAN in his life life is six years old and lives three houses down.

What conclusions can you draw from my anecdote?

November 11, 2008 at 11:00 pm
(8) autism says:

This is really interesting – may be worth trying a poll just to see if a lot of people have had the same experience. I hate to think that all those unending thousands of dollars spent on therapies could have been saved for a college education…

As I said in the blog post, I’m always wondering whether Tom really needed “therapy” at all – or whether intensive, focused parenting was sufficient. Or – on my bad days – whether I missed some obvious issue, and shortchanged him in some serious way.

Of course, there’s no way to know what would have been had you tried something different. And that’s the case, I think, in every aspect of everyone’s life.

Lisa (autism guide)

November 11, 2008 at 11:16 pm
(9) AutismNewsBeat says:

Please don’t do a poll. It doesn’t prove a thing, except how easy it is to mislead people with meaningless polls.

November 11, 2008 at 11:37 pm
(10) Sandy says:

I think there’s a great percentage that do better just because they just do, only that progress is credited to whatever the arent was doing than just over all developmental progress. It would be impossible to pin point one thing that did it, since most parents do not do just one thing at a time, they do many interventions at a time. You’d need to know all interventions, when and at what age each started to make any sense of it and even then, never under estimate a child’s own naural progression. If one particular thing did make a great difference, as in an over night type of thing, then I with respect, suggest the child suffered from something else other than autism.

November 12, 2008 at 9:10 am
(11) AutismNewsBeat says:

Autism is developmental delay, not developmental stasis. Is it fair to say that if a child shows no development, then he’s not autistic?

November 12, 2008 at 9:41 am
(12) Kassie says:

im kassie and in 12 years old and i have a little brother, Kamron who is going to turn 3 in december, he hasnt been diagnosed with autism yet but by the way hes progressing it would be a miracle if he didnt have it. Its sad to say but true. He doesnt communicate with words and he doesnt point oranything all he does is yell when he wants something but no one understands him and he throws temper tantrums. Hes very adventurous, and when hes not yelling hes playing with me and the rest of the family .he is usually a very happy kid . he is extremely attached to a stuffed animal and a blanket ever since he was a baby. Enough about kamrom did tod expirence any of these things?

November 12, 2008 at 10:24 am
(13) autism says:

Kassie, I think you’re asking about my son, Tom?

Tom was different from your brother, but he was definitely not a typical three year old. For instance, he did have words – but most of them were memorized from TV, songs, or movies. He also did some things that he’d never do now, such as throwing toys across the room so hard they’d break a window, hitting people for no apparent reason, and so forth.

Overall, though, like your brother, he was a happy and affectionate little guy (he still is, only he’s bigger!). In fact, I was looking through old pictures the other day – and couldn’t find a single one in which he wasn’t cheerful!

Hope this helps.

Lisa (autism guide)

November 13, 2008 at 11:32 am
(14) Twinmom says:

My boys have been treated by a chiropractor for 4 yrs as part of their well-care. Also, its not ‘cracking bones’. They also do hippotherapy which has helped them to generalize skills (academic and behavioral) used in other environments.

I dont think its fair to discredit anything a parent does if its done in a responsible manner. Until the medical community owns up and takes responsiblity for helping our children without always offering medication, I think we as parents are called to do what is best for our children.

November 13, 2008 at 5:33 pm
(15) autism says:

twinmom – nothing against hippotherapy, chiropractic, or homeotherapy as supportive treatments for all kinds of issues.

my point is – so far as I’m aware, none of these interventions (alone or in combination) are likely to cure autism.

yet the parents in the ABC story seemed to believe that those treatments had, indeed, cured their son.

unless their son’s disorder was not autism, but instead some other problem which involved misalignments, mild nutritional issues and balance problems, they are probably mistaken.


Lisa (autism guide)

November 13, 2008 at 5:38 pm
(16) autism says:

Just for the record: AutismNB says “Please don’t do a poll. It doesn’t prove a thing, except how easy it is to mislead people with meaningless polls.”

As I’ve said before, there is no suggestion here (nor will there ever be one) that About.com blog polls are scientific. They are not. They are simply a way to share opinions, gather thoughts, and see what others think about a topic.

While AutismNB may not find such polls worthy of his time, most get a fair amount of interest. Not because they’re intended to stand in for legitimate research, but because they’re interesting and enjoyable.

Lisa (autism guide)

November 14, 2008 at 12:02 pm
(17) Gwendolyn Warren says:

I have three with PDD-NOS and one with autistic like characteristics. Not one of them improved overnight, although to a parent who has struggled to help their child with potty training, not raising their voice, being respectful of others or even eating with manners, those changes can seem like they happened overnight and sometimes like a miracle. (SMILE) I don’t know how many times this has happened to me I have a 17-year-old, a 16-year-old, a 14-year-old and a 12-year-old. They are all within the autism tree, and I can say that I have tried just about everything there is, besides those things that require large amounts of money, because with six of us it’s hard to make it through a month, let alone on the side therapies. To be honest I think every parent has the right to feel like their child progresses because of something they have done like starting a new therapy or behavioral intervention, etc. As parents we need this positive information because we get a lot of negative stuff coming at us every single day. As long as my sons are making positive gains, I don’t care if it takes a year or a week, I don’t care what the name of the therapy is. And if at some point my sons are “done” or I can see that therapy is no longer producing results then we can effectively drop that therapy and then see what else we can work on.

November 15, 2008 at 7:32 pm
(18) Flippy says:

I have worked with middle school children with Autism for a few years now. The kids I’ve worked with have for the most part, improved as the grew older. I think the way we try to communicate with these children is key. Perhaps this is why many different treatments work instead of just one. I found that often rewording (and or communicating by pictures or gestures or even by song) requests of my children with Autism made a huge difference. I’ve had to be very creative in getting my ideas across to the kids I work with before they would understand me. Sometimes it seems like they are not listening. I wonder sometimes if they recognize that the sounds I am making are words for them to respond to. Also, I’ve seen parents and teachers treat older CWA(Children With Autism) like 3-year- olds, believing them incapable of more age appropriate behavior. This makes life very easy for them. These CWA have very few demands made on them, pretty clever! Most CWA are capable of more than what they are doing at the moment-Just Like The Rest Of Us!!!
(Albeit at a different pace and in a different way)

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