Autism is a brain development disorder that seems to puzzle much of the medical community, as well as families affected by it. Experts, parents and caregivers remain divided on the disorder's origins, as well as treatment and coping methods.
Some people believe autism renders special gifts in people and should be left alone. Others say speech, occupational and sensory therapy are the only ways to help. And there are those who insist it can be effectively treated through dietary and biomedical intervention.
For those interested in the latter approach, a Defeat Autism Now! conference will be held Saturday and Sunday at the Embassy Suites Hotel and Convention Center in Norman. The regional conference, organized by the Autism Research Institute, features doctors and experts who endorse forward-thinking behavioral, biomedical and dietary interventions.
This is Oklahoma's first DAN conference, which is held in major cities nationwide several times a year.
"This is a huge deal," said Sheri Rogers, co-founder of the Parents Fighting Autism support group in Norman. "This conference can give parents hope."
ALTERNATIVE TREATMENT STRATEGIES
Rogers' 6-year-old son, Brian, was diagnosed with autism at age 2. After he showed no progress from months of occupational therapy, Rogers and her husband, Bill, attended their first DAN conference in Boston. They found a "DAN doctor" in Plano, Texas, and began implementing alternative treatment strategies, she said.
Biomedical intervention is "treating the underlying health issues associated with autism," Rogers said. Common health issues shared by autistic children include gut disease, poor digestive health and allergies.
The weekend conference aims to teach doctors, parents and professionals how gastrointestinal disorders, physical detoxification, nutrition and other metabolic issues can affect an autistic child's "sense of self, behavior, attention, speech and general health," DAN director Jane Johnson said in an online statement on the organization's Web site, www.defeatautismnow.com.
Advocates of this intervention say some children can recover from autism by eating a gluten- and casein-free diet. Gluten and casein " a protein found in milk " are said to create an altered state of behavior.
Rogers said she noticed a drastic improvement in her son after she put him on this diet.
"He was not so zoned-out anymore," she said.
Amy Greco said she also believes in a mostly holistic approach to treating autism.
Her 10-year-old son, Thomas, who was diagnosed at age 4, follows a mostly gluten-free diet, which keeps him from being too hyperactive, which can be a side effect of autism. She also gives him melatonin, a natural supplement that helps induce sleepiness, at night. Sleeplessness also is common in autistic children, she said.
Thomas also takes medication.
"That was one of my last resorts," Greco said. "But when I saw how well he did on it (medication), that was amazing."
She said parents should consider all autism treatment methods, both medical and biomedical.
Special diets and treatments "can be so hard to follow on a regular basis," she said. "I believe that everything can be used, and you just have to fit what works for you."
Skeptics of biomedical intervention are concerned with a lack of conclusive research in the field, according to online reports.
Biomedical intervention is considered controversial, in part, because it supports a reduction in the number of government-mandated immunizations that a child receives in his or her early years.
ALTERNATIVE VACCINE SCHEDULE
Actress Jenny McCarthy, who has a son with autism, helped form Generation Rescue with partner Jim Carrey. The national support and educational organization encourages an alternative vaccine schedule to the government's and believes that toxic ingredients in some vaccines may cause or worsen autism in children.
One study on the organization Web site indicates a correlation between a nationwide rise in autism rates and a rise in the number of vaccines given to children in the past 20 years. While later studies have refuted that claim, it remains a controversial topic. The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests children receive up to 11 different vaccinations by age 6.
Rogers said research studies regarding biomedical treatment of autism are few due to lack of funding. Still, some parents are seeing their children's cases improved " although not cured " by natural approaches to treatment.
"We don't have time to wait for these studies to be done," she said. "We're just treating real medical conditions in these kids. It's really not that alternative."
Cost to attend the DAN conference ranges from about $40 for one day to $249 for both days. Rates vary according to whether a participant is a parent, caregiver or health care professional. Student and military discounts and scholarships are provided. "Elizabeth Camacho Wiley