A FEW years ago, I attended a scientific conference on autism. In the foyer, among the drug company stands and the stalls selling learning aids, was a promotional display for hyperbaric oxygen treatment.

Commercial providers of this service claim it offers huge benefits for everything from infectious diseases to cancer. For children with autism, it’s alleged to improve cognitive and general function as well as social and language skills.

Weirdly, providers often describe it as a “natural” treatment, offering it alongside homeopathy and various dietary programs. How being put into a metal chamber to breathe pressurised oxygen can be considered natural beats me.

There’s no evidence to support the use of this or many of the other alternative treatments promoted for autism, as Dr Andrew Whitehouse of Perth’s Telethon Institute has written, but that’s not going to stop parents from trying them.

With mainstream medicine unable to offer a silver bullet for the condition, it’s perhaps not surprising that desperate families look elsewhere.

Between 52% and 95% of children with autism have been treated with complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies, compared with around 30% of children in the general population, according to research cited by Dr Whitehouse.

It’s a universal law that, where there is desperation, there will be quacks.

At the extreme end of the spectrum would have to be the “treatment” exposed recently by a BBC investigation in the UK.

The business in question was offering a so-called cure for autism based on a series of “mind treatment” sessions designed to locate an autistic patient’s “inner trauma”. The cost for the series of training sessions was £3500, according to the BBC.

One secretly filmed session shows the therapist repeatedly abusing the reporter posing as a patient, repeatedly asking him at one point to choose between a punch and a slap.

The treatment would seem more likely to cause inner trauma than to cure it.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is certainly mild by comparison, though it does carry some risk of seizures associated with excess oxygen in the blood.

Other autism treatments without an evidence base include chelation, stem cell therapies, immune therapies, various diets and supplements, and, of course, homeopathy.

Unsurprisingly, sites offering these quack therapies also often trumpet long discredited claims about a link between autism and childhood vaccination.

The most ambitious of all the proposed treatments for autism must surely be the Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS), invented by a Mr Jim Humble, which in true 19th century style promises to treat not only autism, but acne, Alzheimer’s, acid reflux, arthritis, asthma and andropause. And that’s only the A’s …

As this particular miracle is essentially composed of bleach, the Therapeutic Goods Administration has warned it poses a serious health risk if consumed by humans.

At least, the 19th century cure-all potions generally had alcohol as their main ingredient.

MMS is not the only alternative autism remedy to carry obvious risks of physical side effects, and all of the bogus cures rob families of funds they could use for services that might actually make a difference.

But, in the absence of a cure for conditions such as autism, there’s one thing we can be sure of: as soon as regulators or the media expose one shonky operator, another will rise to fill the space.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and health writer, journalist and publisher.


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6 thoughts on “Quackery exploiting autism families

  1. Sue Ieraci says:

    Readers might be interested in the case of a de-registered Chiropractor who is still able to provide hyperbaric therapy as an unregistered provider as the chambers are unregulated.

    The case against him, prosecuted at VCAT by the Chiro Board, is here:

  2. Hyperbaric Physician says:

    As an anaesthetist and Hyperbaric physician myself, these claims saddens me and blemishes Hyperbaric Oxygen therapy. All of the Hyperbaric physicians know that we cannot treat Autism, ADHD, cerebral palsy or any of these childhood neurological disorders. But there are people out there who are not doctors, who go and buy some sham chambers that could not even give hyperbaric oxygen advertising themselves as giving Hyperbaric Oxygen therapy. They are not licensed to run these chambers and the chambers are most of the time either not running 100% oxygen or cannot be compressed to 2.4 atmosphere. And these chambers are highly explosive. Most of these sham chambers and false data are from America where there are many people exploiting parents for money for conditions that cannot be treated. People has lost all their live savings this way.

    Hyperbaric Oxygen does work for the chronic wounds and post-radiation injuries and diving injuries. All of its indications can be found at the SPUMS website. The chamber has to be run by trained technicians and patients looked after by doctors and nurses with experience in Hyperbaric Oxygen. Most Australian capital cities has a hyperbaric chamber in their tertiary public hospitals. But it is still a little known area of expertise, to doctors and public alike. And when quarks blemishes Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy, I’m afraid that the public and doctors would stop believing in its proven indication and label all of us, Hyperbaric physicians, as dark art.

    I would like the government or the AHPRA to look into licensing of these chambers and the people looking after it, to stop the spread of these falsified indications. After all, it is not a natural therapy and it can potentially kill people if they explode. Last but not the least, for those who are wondering, the Hyperbaric Oxygen won’t keep your skin young either.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I think it is terrible that people are duped this way. There is very good evidence that this is an epigenetic phenomenon and in addition they have found (I do not have the reference) but a part of the DNA (around 1 million base pairs)missing in these kids, it would be better that the epigenetic phenomenon be discovered and the parents effectively warned, maybe this would help

  4. Sue Ieraci says:

    “Anonymous” is right – there is also a fringe movement within medicine offering “integrative” medicine which essentially integrates science-based care with the non-science based. Modalities can include non-indicated supplements, including IV vitamins and more invasive therapies like chelation. Anyone providing false hope and profiting from scam therapies should be held to account.

  5. Anonymous says:

    We also have doctors promoting faecal microbiota transplantation as a therapy for autism & many other unproven indications, in Australia whilst charging very significant fees (thousands of dollars) – and mainstream media appearing to endorse the practice by providing “good news” stories on it and uncritical reportage. So it’s not just hyperbaric oxygen and antivaxers! and not just an issue in the UK…

  6. Sue Ieraci says:

    Thanks for the article. Families struggling with behavioural and developmental issues are certainly vulnerable to quackery, and can also fall into the arms of the anti-vax movement, which validates their suffering and gives them an external locus of blame. For some families, the fact that autism has a strong genetic tendency makes them feel they are being “blamed” for their children’s struggle, as if their genes are somehow “defective”. It is important that conventional health care providers understand these dynamics so they can support and advise families in a way that also validates their struggles but offers them evidence-based strategies.

    Interestingly, an ex-lawyer who is currently peddling anti-vax propaganda assisted an ex-Chiro, who provided hyperbaric therapy, in court. The Chiro was de-registered but continues to provide this “therapy” to vulnerable people. (See CBA vs Hooper).

    Meanwhile, many parents of children on the Autism spectrum do look to science for evidence to help their kids reach full potential, as reflected on the website of the Autism Science Foundation: http://autismsciencefoundation.org/. The site contains many great resources, including an extensive reference list.

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