A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with the mother of an autistic child that highlighted both the appeal and the danger of ”alternative” autism therapy. This mother, who is a bright and well-read person, is not medically or scientifically sophisticated, like most of the population, including most parents of autistic children.
During our conversation, this woman mentioned that she was having concerns about her child’s “DAN! doctor” (her term), specifically the expensive medications and “supplements” he was prescribing. In addition, although this practitioner described himself as a “holistic” physician, treating the “whole patient”, he refused to treat the boy’s seizure disorder or his asthma. Apparently, “holistic” doesn’t include the brain or lungs.
What struck me, however, was her comparison between their “DAN! doctor” and the neurologist who is treating their son’s seizures. She felt an uncomfortable lack of confidence in the neurologist because she stated, in the first visit, that she didn’t know what was causing the boy’s seizures and needed to do some tests. In fact, this neurologist went so far as to admit that they might never discover a cause for the seizures, even after extensive testing. In contrast, their “DAN! doctor” always has an answer and uses tests to merely confirm his “clinical impression”.
Therein lies the appeal and the danger of “alternative” practitioners.
To recap – the neurologist admitted to this parent that she – the neurologist – couldn’t tell what was causing the seizures and needed to do further testing. The “DAN! doctor”, on the other hand, could tell that her son was suffering from “mercury toxicity” on the first visit and only did the $1400 worth of blood, urine and stool testing in order to confirm his diagnosis.
At this point, I asked my friend if she would look at the situation from a slightly different angle. Instead of seeing the neurologist’s lack of certainty as a flaw, maybe it was simply honesty. After all, how could anyone be sure what was causing the seizures without some testing? For that matter, how could her “DAN! doctor” be so certain that her son had “mercury toxicity” before any of the tests were done? And why – if the diagnosis was so obvious – did he need to do $1400 in tests (all done at expensive mail-order labs)?
Another curious point is that this “DAN! doctor”, while he has never wavered in his assessment of “mercury toxicity”, has been all over the map in terms of therapies. He started out with chelation, which he assured my friend would “recover” her son “in a matter of months”. When the boy’s behavior worsened, the doctor said it was “the toxins being mobilised” and when she commented after a year of chelation that her son seemed no better, the doctor said “It’s because you are too close – I see tremendous improvement!”. Funny thing, the boy’s teachers, who had no knowledge of the chelation, didn’t see much improvement, either.
After two years on chelation (and anti-fungal therapy, since “yeast overgrowth” was apparently another result of his “mercury toxicity”), the “DAN! doctor” abruptly switched to methyl B12 and Actos (pioglitazone), switching to Avandia (rosiglitazone) when Actos was suspected of causing heart failure (note: Avandia is equally suspect in causing heart failure). In addition, he has ”prescribed” a large number (and ever-changing variety) of “supplements”, “herbal” medicines, and even homeopathic remedies, all of which he conveniently has available for sale in his office. When asked why he stopped the chelation despite the fact that the urine testing continued to show “elevated mercury” (for over two years), the “DAN! doctor’s” answer was “He has poor methylation, which is preventing his body from eliminating the mercury.” – a statement which has no apparent basis in fact.
Somewhere along the line, this “DAN! doctor” also prescribed Valtrex (valacyclovir), which he justified by claiming that “it has helped a lot of autistic children”. When my friend complained about the cost (her insurance wouldn’t cover long-term therapy without documentation of a chronic herpes infection), he prescribed Zovirax (acyclovir) with the warning that it wasn’t as effective (note: the active drug is identical in both medications).
All of this shows that while the neurologist – in whom my friend has little confidence – is being honest and open, the “DAN! doctor” – who my friend trusts implicitly – is often in error but rarely in doubt. A doctor who admits that he or she doesn’t know something is being honest; a doctor who is never unsure about a diagnosis or treatment is probably not being honest.
Another aspect of “alternative” autism therapy – and “alternative” medicine as a whole – that this conversation brought up is the “Magic 8-Ball” nature of “alternative” diagnosis and therapy. Although these practitioners usually claim to provide “individualised treatment”, many (if not most) follow very rigid diagnostic and therapeutic algorithms. Practitioners seem to “specialise” in either the diagnoses they make (e.g. “Lyme disease”, “heavy metal toxicity”, etc.) or the treatments they administer (e.g. chelation). Some even do both, “specialising” in – for example – the treatment of Lyme disease with chelation. Thus, every patient who walks through the door is fated to receive either a limited range of diagnoses, a limited range of therapies, or both.
And while the Magic 8-Ball has twenty possible answers, many of these practitioner have far, far fewer choices in their armamentarium. No matter what the problem, it always seems to need the same treatment (or treatments – shotgun therapy is the norm in ”alternative” medicine). This is not to say that they are consistent, however. Many, including my friend’s “DAN! doctor”, blow with the prevailing winds of “alternative” medicine. They can be counted on to provide the latest fashion in “alternative” medicine without the slightest concern that today’s “miracle cure” directly contradicts yesterday’s “medical secrets THEY don’t want you to know”.
Because this is fantasy-based medicine, it doesn’t even matter that two or more current treatments might be based on mutually exclusive “hypotheses”. One excellent example is how hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) is being touted as a treatment for “oxidative stress” – a claim that makes as much sense as drinking vodka to reduce your blood alcohol level. Still, it doesn’t have to make sense; it’s magic!
This ‘blog aspires to be a science-based alternative to the dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of fantasy-based ‘blogs about the cause(s) and treatment(s) of autism. Along the way, it will also include occasional posts about critical thinking and how to read and interpret the scientific literature.