When naturopaths treat autism, children suffer

Another child has been severely harmed by a naturopath—this time, in the UK.

A four-year-old boy with autism received naturopathic treatments that landed him in the emergency room. The boy had severe dehydration and dangerously elevated calcium levels. A naturopath had prescribed a regimen of vitamin D, calcium, cod liver oil, zinc and a long list of other substances that included silver, enzymes, salts and trace minerals

As a former naturopath, this case is all too familiar. I have given children with autism these same treatments. Vitamin D and cod liver oil were two of my staples, not just for autistic patients, but for virtually everyone. For kids with autism, I frequently prescribed very expensive supplements, which allegedly were specially formulated for autism. Some of these made vague but profound-sounding health claims, which exemplifies the definition of gobbledygook. For example:

[Detox Package 2] ensures the mucosal barrier is immunologically protected by sufficient levels of Secretory IgA, free from bad bacteria, fungi and a bio film [sic] which together hold onto toxins and heavy metals.

Toxins? Heavy metals? Bad bacteria? As far as we know, none of these are related to autism. Yet, naturopaths try to eliminate them because they believe they know better than medical experts.

There is no cure for autism. Still, naturopaths recommend probiotics, herbal products, vitamins, homeopathy and special diets to treat this complicated neurodevelopmental disorder. I am fortunate no one, to my knowledge, was severely harmed by my care, but I did waste a lot of my patients’ money by recommending useless therapies.

This new case shows us that natural treatments can cause real harm. It reminds me of Ezekiel Stephan dying of meningitis after getting echinacea from a naturopath in Canada. Outcomes like this reinforce the need to ban all naturopaths from treating children.

What licensed naturopaths do for autism

Licensing and self-regulation are no obstacles to the quackery being practiced by naturopaths. In North America, licensed naturopaths can legally use the same treatments given by the British naturopath that endangered the life of the young boy.

In San Diego, California, a licensed naturopath, Nicola McFadzean Ducharme of RestorMedicine, claims that she can heal autism. On her website, she advertises a variety of therapies including hyperbaric oxygen chambers, chelation treatments, vitamin injections and special diets for treating autism. Imagine another case report of an adverse event with an autistic child being put in a pressurized oxygen chamber.

To clarify her stance on using unproven therapies for autism, Nicola writes:

It is not easy to venture outside the conventional medical system, but their common belief that nothing can be done for these kids and that complementary and alternative treatments have no value in the treatment of autistic-spectrum disorders are absolutely false and misleading.

But Nicola is the one misleading her patients:

Once your child’s system has been cleared of toxins to the best of their ability, they can begin the process of neurological healing and recovery. We use the word recovery because for many children this potential is achievable.

She is not the only licensed naturopath claiming to cure autism.

In Ontario, Canada, licensed naturopath Sonya Doherty has a practice named Treat Autism and ADHD. Sonya claims that she can help children recover from autism by addressing oxidative stress, mitochondrial dysfunction, environmental toxicity and methylation impairment. These are made-up causes of autism that can fool parents.

A testimonial posted on Doherty’s Treat Autism and ADHD website shows the toll naturopathic treatment can have on a family. In the video, the parents of a young boy with autism, Magnus, describe how therapies like vitamin B12 shots, a paleo diet, supplements and hyperbaric oxygen treatment helped their son recover from brain damage caused by medications and surgeries needed to fix a birth defect. We see images of Magnus watching movies inside a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, eating carrots, getting an injection and taking supplements in the kitchen. The parents summarize their experience with naturopathic treatment for their son’s autism as you get what you put into it.

Doherty has convinced these parents into believing that they alone are responsible for their son’s recovery from autism. It is a matter of parental financial and emotional investment that naturopaths exploit and benefit from.

The parents of children with autism that I saw had a difficult time with conventional treatments. They worried about side effects. They wanted a solution. They wanted a regimen.

Conclusion

The prevalence of using alternative approaches to treat autism coincides with naturopaths trying to go mainstream as medical professionals. Yet, naturopaths bring pseudoscientific practices to the table that are dangerous and have no good evidence to support their use. Naturopaths themselves even admit that naturopathy is an ideology, not a scientific enterprise.

In my class notes from Bastyr University where I graduated with a degree in naturopathic medicine, I quoted one of my instructors, Brad Lichtenstein, saying in a lecture:

We need to show [medical doctors] that naturopathy goes beyond the tools or modalities used in naturopathic care; our philosophy includes our therapeutic intention, rapport and the experience of naturopathy, which goes beyond what research defines as medicine.

Patients must be careful not to confuse good intentions for good medical training. Naturopaths superficially speak the words of medicine, but they don’t understand the language.

Britt Marie Hermes is a former naturopathic doctor who blogs at Naturopathic Diaries.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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