Every year an increasing number of children are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In 2010 it was estimated that 1-2 people per 1,000 had an autism spectrum disorder worldwide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention most recent analysis estimates that in the United States, 1 in 68 children have an ASD. As more children, parents, caregivers and teachers are faced with the potential hurdles of living life along the spectrum, many are asking, how can acupuncture and Chinese medicine help?

Autism spectrum disorders are a group of complex neurodevelopmental disorders, characterized by difficulties with social interaction, challenges with language and non-verbal communication, repetitive behaviors, and often unique strengths in other areas. Autism and other spectrum disorders are believed to be caused both by genetic and environmental factors. The more obvious signs of the disorder are usually noticed between the ages of two and three, at which time normal development in the areas of difficulty has typically occurred. 

Studies have demonstrated that acupuncture and Chinese medicine can help improve function in children with an ASD, including: language comprehension, self-care abilities, motor skills and coordination, social initiation, and attention span (1). Acupuncture especially seems to be helpful with secondary outcomes, such as communication and linguistic ability, cognitive function, and global functioning. There is less evidence of acupuncture making a significant change in the primary outcome of core autistic features (2). 

Chinese medicine treats all diseases and disorders based upon pattern differentiation. An individual is assessed based upon pulse, tongue, facial diagnosis, symptoms, and behaviors. Common patterns treated for autism include: phlegm misting the mind, spleen qi deficiency, kidney essence deficiency, heart blood deficiency, heart yin deficiency, heart qi deficiency, and heart heat/fire, or a combination of these. Acupuncture, nutritional therapy, herbal medicine, massage/tui na, and meditation practices (tai chi, qi gong) are all components of Chinese medicine that may be employed when treating autism spectrum disorders. 

A healthful whole foods diet is crucial to health in Chinese medicine theory. Diet is supposed to be the first medicine, with herbal medicine and acupuncture treatment necessary with worsened conditions. The GAPS diet has been found to be successful in helping treat those on the autism spectrum. The GAPS diet is an acronym for Gut And Psychology Syndrome and is a fairly strict diet that limits or omits all grains and commercial dairy, and processed and refined carbohydrates. The goal is to heal the gut, restore the optimal bacteria in the gastrointestinal system, and rebalance the immune system. You can find out more about this diet here: http://www.gapsdiet.com/gaps-outline.html.

Herbal medicine and tui na (massage) are quite helpful for treating children with ASD. Herbs and massage are often used for treatment when still establishing a relationship with a patient. While acupuncture requires sitting still and a bit more trust, herbal medicine can easily be given at home and tui na feels good and doesn’t require the disciplined stillness that acupuncture does. Very few studies have been carried out researching the effects of tui na on autism spectrum disorders (3), however there are many positive outcomes anecdotally. 

Acupuncture and Chinese medicine can help children and adults along the autism spectrum with cognitive functioning, linguistic abilities, self-care, attention span, coordination, motor skills, and social initiation, by treating the pattern of the patient and stimulating the nervous system and the brain. Another important aspect of treating autism includes healing the gut and microbiome with an appropriate and healthful diet. April is the month for autism awareness, I hope this information can help someone with autism whom you love.