Guidelines for Pediatric Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs)
Updated: Aug 4
Integrative medicine approaches to pediatric care emphasize prevention and anticipatory guidance to support safety and the role of family dynamics in child wellness (Kligler & Lee, 2013). The increased prevalence of children living with chronic conditions and the desire to reduce pediatric prescription medication drive increased interest in complementary and alternative treatments for this population (McClafferty et al., 2017). Alternative approaches are often chosen to treat a specific condition, such as head or chest cold, musculoskeletal conditions, anxiety or stress, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (McClafferty et al., 2017). The pediatrician's role as the primary contact and gatekeeper of services includes early identification and coordination of services for families of autistic children by promoting functional independence and quality of life through education and support of families (Myers & Johnson, 2007).
Intensive education approaches are the foundation of ASD management. Assessment-based curricula such as Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children (TEACCH), Strategies for Teaching based on Autism Research (STAR), and Teach Town vary in strategy but share common principles and components. A high degree of structure, ongoing measurement and documentation of progress, a low student-to-teacher ratio with small group instruction and sufficient 1:1 time, parent training as needed, intentional generalization, and a dosage of 25 hours per week for 12 months per year are suggested for effective engagement. Applied behavior analysis (ABA), Speech and language therapy, and Occupational therapy (OT) are specific practices that are frequently integrated into educational programs to reduce interfering behaviors, teach social communication skills, and support participation in meaningful activities (Myers & Johnson, 2007).
Autistic children need primary health care but may also require attention to unique needs related to their underlying neurodiversity (Myers & Johnson, 2007). 50-80% of children experience sleep difficulties (Klein & Kemper, 2016). Identifiable causes such as gastroesophageal reflux and sleep apnea should be ruled out as a part of an initial assessment. Sleep interventions for children with ASD should begin with parent education using behavioral approaches as a first-line approach. Melatonin may be effective in improving sleep onset. Antihistamines, benzodiazepines, trazodone, and newer nonbenzodiazepine hypnotic agents, such as zolpidem and zaleplon, may be prescribed in extreme cases of insomnia. (Myers & Johnson, 2007).
A gluten-free, casein-free diet (gfcf-d) is used by up to 38% of the ASD population with comorbid gastrointestinal and behavioral symptoms (Dosman et al.,2013). Gluten is a protein in wheat, rye, triticale, and barley. Casein is a protein in mammalian milk products (e.g., milk, cheese, yogurt, butter, and processed foods). A controversial leaky gut hypothesis supports excluding these foods from the diet. Dosman et al. (2013) suggest ruling out celiac disease and failure to thrive before a trial of gfcf-d. If the baseline diet has limited foods, a gradual implementation over 12 weeks is suggested with dietitian guidance to ensure nutritional adequacy and an OT or SLP specializing in feeding (Dosman, 2013).
Increases in children’s sustained attention, communication, social participation, and cognitive flexibility were documented in four small RCTs (Klein &Kemper, 2016). Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation modulates evoked and induced gamma oscillations in the cerebral cortex influencing neurological processing (Casanova, 2020). Outcomes include improved executive functioning and stimulus-bound behaviors such as sensory processing (Casanova, 2020). Friedrich et al. (2015) found that neurofeedback training paired with gamification of social interactions improved electrophysiology in mirror neurons, emotional responsiveness, and behavior. However, the cost of treatment is unreasonable for many families if it is not covered by insurance.
Casanova, M. F., Sokhadze, E. M., Casanova, E. L., & Li, X. (2020). Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation in Autism Spectrum Disorders: Neuropathological Underpinnings and Clinical Correlations. Seminars in Pediatric Neurology, 35.https://doi/10.1016/j.spen.2020.100832
Dosman, C., Adams, D., Wudel, B., Vogels, L., Turner, J., & Vohra, S. (2013). Complementary, holistic, and integrative medicine: autism spectrum disorder and gluten- and casein-free diet. Pediatrics in Review, 34(10),e36-41.https://doi.org/10.1542/pir.34-10-e36
Friedrich, E., Sivanathan, A., Lim, T., Suttie, N., Louchart, S., Pillen, S., & Pineda, J. (2015). An Effective Neurofeedback Intervention to Improve Social Interactions in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 45(12), 4084–4100. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-015-2523-5
Klein, N., & Kemper, K. J. (2016). Integrative Approaches to Caring for Children with Autism. Current Problems in Pediatric & Adolescent Health Care, 46(6), 195–201. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cppeds.2015.12.004
Kligler, B. & Lee, R. (2013). Integrative Medicine: Principles for Practice. New York: McGraw Hill.
McClafferty, H., Vohra, S., Bailey, M., Brown, M., Esparham, A., Gerstbacher, D., . . . Yeh, A. M. (2017). Pediatric Integrative Medicine. Pediatrics, 140(3).
Myers, S. M., & Johnson, C. P. (2007). Management of Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders. Pediatrics, 120(5), 1162-1182.