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What is a Bio-medical Approach to Autism?

biomedical approach to autismThe full spectrum of autism and its associated disorders has a wide range of symptoms. Because of this broad number of symptoms and manifestations, autism can be approached and treated in different ways. One ‘traditional’ western way of approaching autism is treating it as a mental health disorder. When this mental health approach is utilized, it often leads to the prescription of strong psychiatric drugs to control inappropriate symptoms. The approach in other countries may look different as well, as many behaviors that are ‘red flags’ for autism in the US are desirable or acceptable in other cultures. Currently, in the western world, there has been a movement away from the traditional mental health/psychiatric mindset, with health professionals instead viewing autism and its symptoms like a small part of a much bigger whole. 

 Many parents may hear the vocabulary ‘bio-medical treatment’ tossed around during care planning for their autistic child, leaving them wondering “what is a bio-medical approach to autism?” A bio-medical approach is a clear move away from the traditional psychiatric approach discussed above. Instead, the autistic individual is assessed and treated for a variety of medical conditions that may be the cause of autistic behavior. Natural or holistic therapies are frequently utilized, to achieve a better nutritional and biological balance in the autistic body. 

Related resource: Top 25 Master’s in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Online

Assessment of the Root Causes

Conventional treatments for autism usually focus on treating the symptoms. This may include things like inappropriate behaviors, poor social cues, communication difficulties, and poor speech patterns and style. The bio-medical approach is focused on determining and treating the root cause of the autistic symptoms. Many physicians believe that an underlying problem with the immune, digestive or endocrine systems may cause or lead to autism symptoms. The bio-medical supposition is that finding and treating the root condition could reduce or eliminate the child’s autism symptoms, as well as achieve greater overall health.

Medical Tests to Evaluate the Individual

The bio-medical approach to autism will require that a range of medical tests be performed on the child or patient. Much of the diagnostic testing can be performed via a blood draw or excretion sample; this means that test(s) can usually be done during the same appointment or within a short season of the patient’s life.

Here are a few commonly ordered tests for the autistic patient being treated from a bio-medical perspective. A tilt table test may be performed to check for gastroesophageal reflux disease. A blood sample might be collected to determine if the child has heavy metal poisoning or a nutritional deficiency. Urine testing may be performed to check the child’s metabolic function. Testing for oxalates, which are fungi found in certain medications used to treat common bacterial infections, may also be performed. Microbial testing from a stool sample, nasal swab or saliva sample may also be collected and analyzed, in order to determine if the child has a buildup of yeast or bacteria in the digestive or nasopharyngeal tract.

There is not a “standard” number of medical tests or schedule of diagnostic tools for an autistic patient. Care plans will often be extremely individualized. Determining which tests may be important for evaluation is the job of the care provider. Usually, this process will involve the patient and their parents, as a complete medical and social history and assessment will need to occur.

Medical Treatments for the Individual

According to Indiana University, the treatment of underlying gastrointestinal abnormalities, nutritional deficiencies, immune system dysfunctions or detoxification problems is a bio-medical approach that might allow families to avoid the use of powerful psychiatric drugs for treating autism. Treating any abnormalities and deficiencies that are discovered via diagnostic testing and evaluation is often relatively easy. For example, a child with a low vitamin D level could be given a supplement. A child with gastroesophageal reflux disease may benefit from the use of antacids or acid controllers. Many safe, over-the-counter options could be prescribed, once a care provider has determined that dysfunction or deficiency exists. 

Naturopathic Therapies for Autism

Many parents or caretakers have also found some success with naturopathic therapies for autism. This piece of the bio-medical approach involves a focused effort on special diets and nutritional supplements. For example, some parents find that eliminating foods with artificial food coloring lessens symptoms. Others have had success with eliminating foods that contain gluten, casein or processed sugar. The addition of vitamins such as B12 or nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids has also helped with the autism symptoms of some children. Ultimately, bio-medical diets are usually pretty restrictive and follow a particular sequence of elimination, so the autistic child or patient will need some direction and control in order to attempt this ‘treatment.’ 

Proponents of the bio-medical diet claim that it has gastrointestinal benefits (decreased constipation, diarrhea, and cravings), immunological benefits (decreased allergies, migraines, or abnormal infectious disease reactions), and neurological benefits (positive alteration to sensory impressions), though science has yet to prove that diet changes solely and directly impact, improve, or regress these different complications of autistic life.

So, what is the success of the bio-medical approach to autism? It is difficult to say conclusively. Many autism symptoms are non-specific, so it can be difficult to determine if bio-medical tools and modalities are solely responsible for patient progress. However, a medical approach to autism is something for families to consider before utilizing psychiatric drugs to manage autism symptoms. This treatment approach may also be very important for autistic patients who do not tolerate prescription drugs or who have swallowing disorders that make it difficult for them to take medication. Unquestionably, understanding the bio-medical approach to autism gives parents and caregivers more options for providing their child with the best support, care, and opportunity.

ABA Programs Guide Staff

Updated April 2020

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