Children with autism have it tough. There are many theories on what causes autism, and perhaps, even more theories on how to help those on the spectrum. You want what’s best for your child, and there are many people who want to help you.
One alternative medicine you might consider is chiropractic care, the use of which is currently a bit controversial. We’ll go through some arguments in favor and against chiropractic care for children with autism below.
Chiropractic practitioners believe that good general health comes from a healthy musculoskeletal system, especially the spine. If the spine or other joints are out of alignment, the nervous system is unable to work properly, and illness can result. Adjustment of the spine and joints can reduce stress on the nervous system and allow the nerves to flow more freely, thus easing pain and other symptoms of illness. Chiropractic care has the most credibility when dealing with acute back pain. It is also known to help heal muscular imbalances when used along with other methods.
Chiropractic Treatment and Autism
The idea of using chiropractic treatment to help adults and children with autism is a relatively recent idea. Like mainstream medicine, chiropractors do not claim to know the causes of autism, and most will not claim to be able to cure it—nor will they desire to do so.
However, since autism has neurological components, chiropractors believe that maximizing nervous system health by manipulating the neck or spine can ease symptoms of autism and allow children to develop more easily and reach their full potential. The basic idea is that when the system is irritated or blocked, it can lead to stress and a panic state in the nerves. Instead of existing in homeostasis, the nervous system is locked into the fight-or-flight state, inhibiting normal childhood development, and worsening existing symptoms. By aligning the spine, neck, and skull, the nerves are more relaxed and free, and able to exist in a calm state.
Multiple chiropractors have noted improvements in the symptoms of autism after chiropractic care. There is no large body of research on this subject yet, and most of what is out there is plenty of individual case studies. There has been at least one study into the subject, in which multiple chiropractors took on several dozen children on the autistic spectrum to find out which chiropractic treatment helped the children the best. The two methods used by these research chiropractors were a full spine adjustment or adjustment of the part of the spine close to the neck. The children involved were said to have improvements in personal, physical, and emotional skills. The full spine adjustment was not as effective as the upper cervical adjustment.
The researchers claimed that two of the children in the upper cervical adjustment group had such an improvement that they no longer tested as having autism.
A critique of chiropractic care
Unfortunately, the research performed with those children was not up to the standards of modern scientific scrutiny. The chiropractors involved failed to establish a control group, a group of autistic children who underwent no chiropractic care. Without this control group, it cannot be proven that chiropractic care was more effective than without such care.
Control groups are important to eliminate bias in research, and the omission is a serious blow to the study’s credibility. There was also no blinding in the study. Everyone involved knew which group they were in and the expected result. The parents of the children reported the results and supposed improvements, which also led to biases.
The duration of the study is another issue. Being only three weeks long, and without a follow-up after a period of time, the study could show nothing but short-term effects. Systematic reviews of the existing literature reveal little real evidence in favor of (or against, for that matter) chiropractic care for people with autism.
Another issue raised is the stress the children can go through when undergoing chiropractic care. Any doctor’s visit can be disruptive to their routine, but chiropractors have a lot more hands-on care. Physical handling by strangers can present difficulties to children on the spectrum, and the offices can be unpleasant places to visit.
Is chiropractic care right for you and your child?
Only you can decide the answer to that question. It is important to keep an open mind and try to do what’s best for your child. While there is no hard evidence in favor of chiropractic care for your child, you may decide that it is still worth a shot as there is also no evidence that it can be a negative experience for you and your child, if undertaken by a gentle, caring chiropractor.
Not all chiropractic methods are the rough, forceful adjustments of yesteryear. If you would like to see if chiropractic care is good for your child, inquire with chiropractic facilities around you to find out which ones use more recently developed and gentle adjustments. It might also be a good idea to inquire with the child’s existing primary care provider, as they may have a professional opinion on the subject. If you find a chiropractor who uses gentle treatments and has experience caring for children with autism, then it may be worth talking with them further.
The chiropractor and you should work together to pay attention to several factors to reduce the stress on the child as much as possible.
Ensuring proper chiropractic care
Routine is important. Many children, especially children with autism, are disturbed by change, so if a consistent treatment time can be established, it will help. The consistency should continue throughout the office, with the chiropractor greeting, treating, and sending the child home the same way each visit. Sound should be kept to a minimum, and lights gentle. Hypersensitivity to sound and light needs to be kept in mind at the doctor's office, and the chiropractor should take care to ensure a calm, relaxed atmosphere. Distractions may be useful in keeping the child stress-free.
You or an assistant to the chiropractor should be at hand during the treatment, keeping the child engaged, such as with a storybook or puppets. Every child is unique, and the chiropractor should discuss with you the non-verbal cues that your child is becoming stressed out so that they can adjust or end the treatment to keep the child happy. Communication between the chiropractor and you, the parent, is the key. The two of you should be able to discuss your child’s progress and any issues you may have with their care. If you find yourself unable to talk with the chiropractor to your satisfaction, it may be best for the child to seek care elsewhere.
In short, only you can decide if chiropractic care is appropriate for your child. Unlike some alternative medicine, the most potential downside is a stressful visit, which can be minimized with a gentle chiropractor and good preparation. If you decide to avoid chiropractic care, that is okay as well. Each child is unique, and the best thing for each child is unique. It is important to continue to read and research potential care methods, as well as to consult with healthcare professionals before starting any new method of care.