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Biomedical Treatments for Autism from the Autism Research Institute

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Updated November 04, 2011

The Autism Research Institute (ARI) was created by Dr. Bernard Rimland, one of the pioneers in autism treatment. Dr. Rimland was also one of the creators of the controversial DAN! (Defeat Autism Now) approach to autism treatment. When Dr. Rimland passed away a few years ago, Dr. Steven Edelson took over leadership. In this Q&A, Dr. Edelson answers questions about changes to the ARI approach to autism treatment.

The DAN! biomedical approach was often referred to as the DAN! protocol. Was that correct? How did the name come about?

Defeat Autism Now! was a program developed by ARI, focused on understanding and treating autism from a biomedical perspective. The founders, Drs. Bernard Rimland, Sidney Baker, and Jon Pangborn, never referred to this approach as a protocol. In fact, they often corrected people who used that word. The approach considered each person as an individual case with unique problems and needs, and a protocol is too rigid for that.

Dr. Rimland thought long and hard about the name; he felt strongly he wanted to defeat autism as a disability. He wanted to tackle the variety of problems associated with it, medical problems such as GI, immune, and metabolic dysfunction, and behavior problems (obsessive-compulsive, self-injury, aggression, etc.). And he was disappointed with traditional researchers who appeared in no hurry to find solutions to these problems, which is why he added the exclamation mark to convey the urgency.

Does the decision to change the DAN! name represent a change in philosophy and approach? Is there a new ARI philosophy about treating autism?

It's been 16 years since the first Defeat Autism Now! meeting. It makes sense that our perspective has evolved in that time. In the mid-90s, very little was known about how to treat autism, creating a tremendous vacuum as incidence ballooned. Increasing numbers of parents were searching for answers, and their pediatricians had nothing to offer them. Now we have a sizeable amount of published research, much of which points to the likelihood of environmental triggers, and we have many stories of success, all of which is helping us to refine the focus of our meetings.

Based on the published research, discussions at our annual think tanks, and conversations with parents of children who have shown remarkable improvement, we have determined that it's time to remember our roots and focus more attention on nutrition and nutrients and cleaning up the child's environment (reducing exposure to pesticides and other toxicants); we have also realized it's time to expand ARI's focus into all areas affecting a person's life, including sensory issues, educational therapies, and adult issues.

You've decided to end your registry of DAN! practitioners, which suggests that some of the people who attended your training programs were not doing a good job of treating patients or representing ARI. Is this a correct assessment?

There are many compassionate, highly skilled clinicians on our list, along with some who use approaches and treatments that conflict with what we now know. In addition, it is quite clear that a certification procedure is needed to raise the level of treatment, similar to what has been accomplished with Applied Behavior Analysis. We looked into the possibility of certification for several years, but we finally realized that we are in no position to certify physicians. There are several doctors and professionals who are currently working on this issue.

Since you're ending your registry, how can parents find a doctor or practitioner that approaches autism treatment according to the ARI philosophy? Will ARI provide any tools for evaluating practitioners?

We provide many suggestions on our website. A shorter version of our suggestions:

  • The first step is to contact a local support group and ask for referrals. If there are none in your area, explore ARI's listservs.
  • When seeking a new practitioner, beware of credentials from online diploma mills; be sure the program requires a large number of class hours and mentoring, and that the clinician is licensed or monitored by a supervisory board at the state or national level. Ideally a naturopath has completed a program accredited by the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges (AANMC). When seeking diet or nutrition counseling, we recommend the following: Dietetic Technician, Registered Certified Nutritionist, Certified Clinical Nutritionist, Registered Dietician, Licensed Dietitian-Nutritionist, Licensed Dietician, Certified Nutrition Specialist (through the American College of Nutrition).
  • Ask for an initial consult, and be prepared to ask questions, including:When was the last time he/she attended an ARI Practitioner Seminar? Which level? (Feel free to verify with Jane@autism.com.) How many of these seminars has she/he attended in total? Is he/she board certified? If so, in what? Is there anyone on his/her staff who has been sanctioned, or received any licensing restrictions or revocation in the last five years? Is there anyone on his/her staff who has been or is currently under investigation by any regulatory agency?

    If someone claims to be "ARI-certified," they're overstating; ARI has never had a certification program. If a practitioner claims to "cure" autism, run in the other direction. [Editorial note: Dr. Edelson mentions a variety of certifications as well as a list of further questions parents might want to ask during an initial consult. I recommend a visit to the ARI website to collect all of the information and suggestions provided.]

    There are several controversial treatment approaches that have been, perhaps incorrectly, associated with the biomedical approach to treating autism. Which, if any, does ARI recommend?

    Each case calls upon a different calculus when weighing treatment decisions. Our job is not to choose treatments to "support"-it's to provide complete, unbiased information, so families, along with their licensed clinician, can make informed decisions for their loved one with autism, based on sound data.

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