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Children's Hospital Launches Study of Alternative Treatments Thought to Improve Language and Behavior in Kids with Autism

Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh researchers are conducting a first-of-its-kind study to measure the safety and effectiveness of several alternative therapies for young children with autism spectrum disorder.

Researchers led by Michelle Zimmer, MD, a developmental pediatrician in Children's Child Development Unit, plan to study three alternative therapies - a supplement known as Omega-3 fatty acid; a special diet free of gluten and casein (wheat and milk proteins); and a diet which restricts sugar intake. In recent years, many parents and an increasing number of medical practitioners have claimed that these therapies improve the symptoms of autism, according to the Autism Society of America.

Over the next three years, Children's plans to recruit 80 children ages 30-54 months recently diagnosed with autism to participate in the study, which is funded through the Emmerling Fund of the Pittsburgh Foundation.

"For many years we've heard anecdotal evidence from parents of autistic children that these alternative treatments, such as fish oil supplements and a milk- and wheat-free diet, have led to dramatic improvements in their children's cognitive skills and behavior," Dr. Zimmer said. "But we need concrete, scientific proof that these treatments are safe and effective before recommending them."

Patients enrolled in the study will be assessed by developmental pediatricians and psychologists at Children's over a six-month period. They will have an initial assessment, a second evaluation at three months and a final review at six months. Researchers will videotape interactions between the child and parents as well as between the child and physician at each of these visits to aid in the evaluation.

Researchers will evaluate whether the child makes any improvements in his or her language ability and autistic behaviors, such as avoidance of eye contact and physical interaction, and the repetition of words or particular movements. This will be done through a review of the taped sessions, interviews with parents and tests that measure autistic behaviors.

Autism is a neurological and developmental disorder that typically appears during the first three years of life, according to Dr. Zimmer. It is now estimated to occur in one in every 250 children and is four times more prevalent in boys than in girls. The cause of autism is unknown, but is believed to include genetic and environmental factors, Dr. Zimmer said.

The underlying biological mechanism by which these alternative therapies chosen for this study may work is unclear at this time. However, Dr. Zimmer said that if these treatments are found to be effective, this study may lead to further research that will help to an understanding of the biological causes of autistic symptoms.

Editor's Note: Those interested in participating in the study may contact 412-692-8404.

Marc Lukasiak or Melanie Finnigan, 412-692-5016

Last Update
February 19, 2008
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Last Update
February 19, 2008