Complementary and Alternative Medicines for Autism

by Laurie Roth-Donnell, Master Herbalist and Holistic Health Practitioner

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development noted in early childhood development. These symptoms are displayed in varying degrees, by difficulties with social interaction, verbal or nonverbal communication and the child engaging in repetitive behaviors. Numerous subtypes are merged into one umbrella diagnosis of ASD. There are numerous complementary and alternative medicines (CAM), commonly referred to as integrative medicine, providing natural approaches to many families caring for an autistic child.

Research suggests that between 30 and 95 percent of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have been provided with complementary or alternative medical treatment. It is widely accepted that autism cannot be cured; therefore, many parents seek out alternative and complementary therapies. Below are several complementary and alternative therapies commonly recommended and readily available in today’s market.


More than half of all children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) struggle with sleep disorders through adolescence and adulthood. Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone that helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Supplements have been found to improve sleep and reduce insomnia in children with autism in research studies funded by Autism Speaks. Vanderbilt University Medical School researcher Beth Malow, M.D., M.S., demonstrated in a pilot study that a nightly dose of melatonin helps children with autism and insomnia fall asleep. Twenty-four children, ages 3 to 9, completed the 14-week experimental treatment and required varied doses to fall asleep. Yet in all cases, a nightly regimen of melatonin (1 – 6 mg) helped with sleep onset within one week, it generally continued for the duration of the study. There were no significant side effects reported or observed by the participants.

Parents reported improvements in their children’s daytime behavior and stress reduction. Melatonin can also reduce the symptoms of depression and vitamin D will assist to normalize sleep patterns—15 minutes of sun exposure/day is recommended.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids:

Fatty acids are essential for the development and function of the brain. Several small studies have suggested that omega-3 fatty acid supplements may reduce autism-related symptoms such as repetitive behavior and hyperactivity, as well as improve socialization.

A 2011 study by Autism Speaks enrolled 27 children, ages 3 to 8, diagnosed with ASD and hyperactivity. Some of the children were given 1.3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids each day, disguised in a pudding cup. The other children received the pudding without the supplement. Over the course of 12 weeks, those who received omega-3 fatty acids showed significantly greater improvements on validated measure of reduced hyperactivity (an improvement of 2.7 vs. 0.3 points on the Aberrant Behavior Checklist).

Sources of omega 3’s: flax seeds, cloves, walnuts, oregano, Chinook salmon, cauliflower, scallops, mustard, cabbage, lettuce, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, squash, halibut, collard greens, spinach, kale, soybeans, shrimp, cod, strawberries, string beans, snapper, and tuna. Nutrition and whole foods play a key role everyone’s health, but supplements are also a great alternative.

Vitamin Methyl B12:

A final popular CAM treatment involves injections of the vitamin methyl B12 and must be administered by your primary care physician or specialist. They suggest that this vitamin injection protects against oxidative stress (signs of which have been found in some children with autism). Dr. Hendren conducted a small study at UCSF, which associated the vitamin B12 treatment with improved social behaviors, language, and communication in 25 to 35 percent of participants.

As always, when seeking care, answers and remedies for a child that displays autistic behavior, consult your primary care physician regarding all treatments.

Contact the Author: Laurie S Roth-Donnell |
Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders