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Autism Treatment Through Traditional Chinese Medicine

According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, current estimated cases of autism range from one in every 1,000 to one in every 500. Theories suggest vaccines are responsible, but there is growing concern that environmental toxins and pollution may be contributing factors. It is also theorized that nutrition, viral infections, immunizations and antibiotics may be causal aspects as well.

People speak in terms of children "developing" autism, but new research cited by the Autism Society of America suggest genetic ties -- that the disorder is present prenatal. An autism symptom will usually appear before the age of three, at which age a formal diagnosis can be made. Because an autism characteristic can be any combination of insufficiencies in language, social communication and cognition, autism is difficult to diagnose before normal development in these areas would usually occur.

Autism is considered a spectrum disorder by standard medicine. Spectrum disorders are defined as a group of conditions that have similar features but may present an autism symptom in different ways. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) includes "classic" autism, Asperger syndrome, Rett syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (atypical autism). Each of these conditions usually is accompanied by a secondary autism characteristic such as aggression, irritability, stereotypies (invol untary but seemingly purposeful movement) , hyperactivity, negativism, volatile emotions, temper tantrums, short attention span and obsessive-compulsive behavior.

Autism in the Western medical sense does not exist in Chinese medicine. Instead, it is classified under the Syndrome of 5 Delays. The "delays" are observed in the areas of standing, walking, hair growth, teeth eruption and speech. This type of brain dysfunction in children, classic autism characteristic, is seen in traditional Chinese medicine as an imbalance of body functions. Based in the yin/yang theory, TCM views disease within the framework of energy balance.

Unlike Western medicine, which rates the brain the most important factor of the human physique, Chinese medicine sees the body and mind as part of the same circular system with the organs and the central nervous system. Western medicine has traditionally considered emotional influence on the organs as secondary, while Chinese medicine has always seen it as a key to understanding and achieving balance.

In Chinese medicine, reason and awareness, which are strongly affected by autism, are primarily ruled by three organ systems: the Heart, Spleen and Kidney. The Heart holds the Mind or Shen and rules the mental functions, including the emotional state of the individual and short-term memory. The Spleen is linked to the mind's ability to study, memorize and concentrate. Kidney qi rules over long-term memory. A disturbance in these areas can lead to displays of any autism characteristic.

According to Mary Cissy Majebe's, "Chinese Medicine and Autism An Introduction for Parents, Teachers and Allopathic Physicians," autism treatment includes eliminating phlegm; tonifying Heart blood, qi and yin; clearing Heart heat; and tonifying Spleen qi and Kidney essence.

Eliminating phlegm is crucial because it is involved with the two primary Chinese medicine diagnoses of autism. Phlegm misting the mind leads to dull wit and incoherent speech, mental confusion, lethargy and limited attention to surroundings. The condition of Phlegm fire harassing the heart presents as disturbed sleep, talking to oneself, uncontrolled laughing or crying, short temper and tendency toward constipation and aggression.

Balance in the heart is another key element because Heart blood or yin deficiency, as well as Heart fire will prompt an autism symptom on different extremes such as lethargy and quietness, fidgety restlessness or aggressive behaviors.

Spleen qi deficiency and Kidney essence deficiency are central to the pathology of autism, the former affecting food intake (no interest in food, or an excessive hunger), while the latter will result in poor mental development.


Autism Diet and Nutrition

The Autism Research Institute asserts that nutritional treatments have shown great success in autism treatment. They suggest for an autism diet avoiding yeast, glutens, casein and any allergens. The Chinese medical diet is determined by flavor (pungent, sweet, salty), temperature (both physical and energy quality) and action on the body. Central to the philosophy and practice of Chinese medicine, it is thought that many, if not most, of our health problems are related to imbalances in our diet. Sensitivity to foods is not the cause of autism, but it does appear that certain components of foods exacerbate some of autism's symptoms. Dietary therapy, by creating a healthy autism diet, helps patients treat illness and maintain health. The general rule in Chinese diet therapy is, "Warm foods restore balance. Just go to the center and forget either extreme." The following are Mary Cissy Majebe's suggested practices for an autism diet.

  • Warming foods that have been lightly cooked or steamed are beneficial for autistic people. Medicinally, warming foods warm meridians, strengthen yang, invigorate Blood, open collateral meridians, and eliminate cold . A "warming" food refers to the physical temperature of food as well as its energetic properties. Dry ginger and garlic, energetically, are both warming foods -- they create heat or warmth in the digestive tract.

All vegetables, particularly root vegetables, are considered warming. Suggested vegetables include: acorn squash, spaghetti squash, butternut squash, pumpkins, kale, spinach, Swiss chard, collard greens, mustard greens, sweet potatoes, yams, turnips, radishes, carrots, button mushrooms and scallions. Grains such as brown rice, white rice, amaranth, millet, barley and quinoa are beneficial. Suggested legumes include lima , navy, adzuki, kidney and lentil beans. Many animal proteins such as chicken or turkey are also considered warming, but should be additive, hormone and antibiotic free.

  • Cold and raw foods should be avoided in an autism diet. Heat or energy allows the digestive system to work efficiently. C old foods have the medicinal functions of clearing heat and fire, cooling the blood, and eliminating toxins. However, cold foods slow the digestive process and contribute to poor digestion. Physically cold food such as popsicles, ice cream and heavily iced drinks, as well as energetically cold food such as soy products and most fruits, should be limited.
  • Eliminating damp producing foods is key in treating autism. Excessive amounts of damp producing foods lead to the development of phlegm. Foods that produce dampness include: dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt, ice-cream) sugar, peanuts or peanut butter, fruit (particularly citrus and bananas), eggs, wheat, fried or greasy foods, chilled or frozen foods and excessive amounts of soy are harmful elements of an autism diet.
  • The Center for the Study of Autism says that people with autism are more susceptible to allergies and food sensitivities. Substances to be avoided because of their potential for allergic reactions include all preservatives, food coloring, artificial flavorings and emulsifiers.

Most specialists suggest removing one food item at a time from the diet. Monitoring behavior after the removal of certain foods can help determine the best nutritional plan for each individual.


Acupuncture and Massage

Autism treatment with acupuncture or massage can be a difficult undertaking. It can take time for a child to adjust to touch treatments, but the benefits that have been discovered through studies and by practitioners may well be worth any required patience.

Acupuncture has made incredible strides in treating autism. Its efficacy can possibly be explained through the medical theory that autism is in part a neuroendocrine dysfunction and a result of the incorrect production of opioids. According to the book Scientific Bases of Acupuncture , acupuncture affects opioids, the central nervous system and neuroendocrine function.

Though true point selection follows individual symptoms and signs, there are a variety of points and systems that benefit any particular autistism symptom. Some points, such as P 6 Neiguan, open the mind's orifices while others like St 40 Fenglong resolve phlegm. Du 20 Baihui clears the mind and Ren 12 Zhongwan, St 36 Zusanli and Sp 6 Sanyinjiao tonify the Spleen and stomach.

Tongue acupuncture is also showing remarkable headway healing dysfunctions related to autism, according to recent studies. It is being studied for treating a number of brain disorders in children, including blindness, cerebral palsy and autism.

Tongue diagnosis is a central piece of the Chinese medical diagnostic system because the tongue is the only organ that can be seen externally. Its condition - color, thickness, dryness, smell and superficial growth reflects the condition of the heart and helps doctors determine treatment.

Acupuncture of the tongue is based on Wang Di's work, Internal Medicine and was developed by Dr. Sun JG. In a pilot study led by Professor Virginia Wong, 30 autistic children showed marked improvement in language, social communication and cognition as well as with hyperactivity, attention span, aggression, temper, sleep and functional independence. By activating vital connections in the brain, tongue acupuncture can successfully improve cognition and function in autistic patients.

Although alternative autism treatment such as tongue acupuncture should still be viewed as a complementary approach, these exciting early findings stand as an innovative starting point for a new system of autism treatment.

Massage therapy is yet another area of Chinese medicine that benefits autism patients. In a 2001 study at the Touch Research Institute, massage therapy produced improved on-task behavior and social relatedness of autistic children. Twenty children, ages three to six were assigned to either massage therapy or reading attention control groups and observed at school and home. Results suggested that the massage group children exhibited less stereotypic behavior and experienced fewer sleep problems.


Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine, a staple of Chinese medicine, is key to its autism treatment. Subhuti Dharmananda, director of the Institute for Traditional Medicine, mentions several herb combinations in her writings on autism. One, a combination of Licorice and Jujube ( Gan Mai Da Zao Tang) and Astragalus and Zizyphus ( Yang Xin Tang ) tonifies the qi and blood, calms the spirit and removes phlegm obstruction of the orifices, a common autism characteristic. Another that combats the uprising of phlegm (which interferes with and clouds the spirit) is the following combination of herbs: hoelen, pinellia, citrus, chih-shih, bamboo, cyperus, polygala, curcuma, acorus saussurea, licorice and ginger. While these have been created and prescribed for yin-type mental disorders and not specifically for autism, symptoms can be vastly improved and altered by such formulas.

Herbal medicine is still in an experimental stage when it comes to treating autism, but there are numerous herbal formulas that show no adverse side effects and have been used extensively in the West for similar symptoms to autism. In order to treat the specific autism symptom each person exhibits, herbal medicine is always individualized.

In Diana Oliver's "A Naturopathic Perspective for the Treatment of Children within the Autistic Spectrum," she states, "The use of herbal medicines in aiding treatment of autism is essential. Its actions of restoration of endocrine activity, repair of mucosa and dysbiosis, antibacterial and antifungal properties, elimination of toxins and digestive functions, can be practiced in one prescription without harmful side effects." Her suggested herbs include:

  • Bitter, choleretic and cholagogue herbs (Gentian, Globe artichoke, Dandelion root), which improve digestive function. Cholagogues to aid the release of bile from the gallbladder and choleretic herbs to stimulate the production of bile in the liver. (Bitter herbs act on receptors in the mouth and later help the gut secrete pancreatic juices and bile).
  • Herbs with healing, anti-inflammatory and protective effects on the gut wall, which include Meadowsweet, Calendula, Chamomile and Marshmallow root, slippery elm.
  • Golden seal, which is restorative to the mucous membranes of the gut wall and a potential modifier of gut flora.
  • Globe artichoke and Licorice to stimulate the release of secretin and improve intestinal flora once established.
  • Chamomile, Garlic, Wormwood, Japanese Honeysukle to boost antimicrobial activity.
  • Depurative and lymphatic herbs, such as Calendula and Burdock to assist detoxification mechanisms.
  • Spasmolytic and carmintive herbs (Fennel, Chamomile and Crampbark), which will improve gastrointestinal motilitye.

Though the mysteries of autism - its cause, onset, cure, diagnoses and exact autism symptom - remain elusive, Chinese medicine treatment options are varied, effective and worthy of investigation. The more studies that are conducted, and the more parents are willing to step partially outside the boundaries of Western medicine, the further the road to effective treatment will reach.