Ordinarily, when we speak of "alternative" treatments for a disorder, we're talking about treatments outside of the medical norm.† Very often, "alternative" treatments are simply tried-and-true treatments which may not be quite as effective as pharmaceuticals but may be preferred for a variety of reasons.† Instead of treating a cold with decongestants, for example, we might use echinacea, a botantical known to help treat the symptoms of a cold.† In that case, we know that decongestants do, indeed, relieve stuffiness - but we also know that echinacea can also relieve symptoms and may have fewer side effects.
Sometimes, people turn to "alternative" treatments when typical treatments have failed and other options have been explored.† People whose pain continues even with narcotic drugs (or who can't handle the side effects of narcotics) may turn to techniques ranging from meditation to hands-on healing.† People who have unsuccessfully tried chemotherapy for cancer may explore stem cell treatments, nutritional healing and other approaches as a last resort.
Says a HealthDay article published in US News and World Reports:
"People turn to complementary and alternative treatments anytime they perceive conventional medical treatments as either not doing the job or being too expensive, or that the complementary and alternative treatments are more natural," said Dr. Daniel Coury, medical director of the Autism Treatment Network and a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Ohio State University. "We see the same sorts of reasons among children on the spectrum."
It's interesting to see this statement, since - so far as I know - there really are no "conventional medical treatments" available to treat autism.† Period.
Yes, there are a couple (literally two) drugs approved to treat very specific symptoms that may or may not appear in a person with autism (severe behavioral issues).† But these are by no means considered appropriate for every person on the spectrum, nor do they actually treat the symptoms of autism itself (social/communications challenges).
Often, behavior therapy or developmental therapy is recommended, but these treatments aren't "medical," nor are they paid for by medical insurance (in fact, they're often provided through public schools as opposed to medical institutions).† They may or may not be effective in improving skills and behaviors.† They certainly are not effective in actually changing the underlying symptoms that cause autistic deficits in skills and behaviors.
Sometimes speech, occupational or physical therapy is recommended - but these therapies are not medical in the usual sense, nor are they likely to actually treat those social/communications symptoms that actually define autism spectrum disorders.
In fact, the therapies that medical practitioners are able to recommend to parents aren't "conventional medical treatments" at all.† And the "alternative treatments" he mentions as most common ("gluten-free, casein-free diet, which eliminates wheat and dairy products...† avoiding processed sugars and taking probiotics, microorganisms found in foods such as yogurt and supplements that may help maintain gut bacterial flora") are based in very solid nutritional research.† These alternative methods may or may not have any impact on autism, but they are certainly not "out in left field."
Meanwhile, other well-publicized "alternative methods" turn out to be far less popular than one would think.† According to the report, less than 1% of parents turn to Hyperbaric Oxygen Chambers, chelation, or other high-tech, potentially risky options.
Seems to me that, given the paucity of really useful, affordable options available to parents through mainstream medicine, we're making some very smart choices about "alternative" medicine for our kids.† It's not as if we're turning down antibiotics in favor of dandelion roots: so far, there is no equivalent of the antibiotic, the decongestant or the aspirin for treating autism spectrum disorders.† And we can't possibly go wrong in choosing healthier, less processed foods for our kids - or in exploring the possibility of food allergies or intolerances.
We're living with the reality that there are no "tried and true" treatments out there that can truly impact the underlying symptoms of autism.† When those treatments do emerge from the research, I would bet that parents will be lining up for them.