autism father and son together
© Thinkstock

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a complex group of generally lifelong developmental disorders, usually diagnosed in childhood. Characteristics of ASD may include problems communicating; difficulty relating to people, things, and events; repetitive movements or behaviors; and difficulty adjusting to unfamiliar surroundings or routines. ASD is called a “spectrum” disorder because it can cause very different symptoms. Some people have mild symptoms and others have much more severe ones. Estimates of autism vary and prevalence studies in the United States have looked only at children, but the most recent U.S. Government statistics estimate that about 1 in 68 children has ASD. It’s 4.5 times more common among boys than girls.

Many parents try complementary health approaches, usually along with conventional medical care, for their children with ASD.

Bottom Line

  • No cure has been found for ASD. However, a variety of therapies, including behavioral management therapy and physical therapy, may help. Early intervention can greatly improve a child’s development. Intensive behavioral therapy for toddlers or preschool children with ASD can improve their cognitive and language skills, research shows. Also, there are medications that help some people with ASD function better.
  • There’s very little high quality research on complementary health approaches for ASD.
  • There’s no scientific evidence that secretin (a gastrointestinal hormone), hyperbaric oxygen, chelation, or antifungal agents help people with ASD, and they may be dangerous.
  • Melatonin may help with sleep problems in people with ASD.
  • Studies have examined omega-3 fatty acids; acupuncture; a modified version of mindfulness-based practices; massage therapy, including qi gong massage; and the hormone oxytocin. It’s not clear whether they improve ASD symptoms, and they should not be used in place of conventional treatments.
  • Special diets may help some people with ASD but their nutritional well-being needs to be carefully monitored before and while on the diet. There’s very limited evidence that the high-fat, very low carbohydrate “ketogenic” diet may help with seizures sometimes associated with autism. A ketogenic diet, used to treat medication-resistant epilepsies, causes the body to break down fats instead of carbohydrates.


  • If you’re thinking about giving a child a dietary supplement or trying another complementary health approach, it’s especially important to consult your child’s health care provider. Few complementary approaches have been studied for children.1
  • If you’re considering a dietary supplement, remember that “natural” does not mean “safe.” Some dietary supplements may have side effects, and some may interact with medications or other dietary supplements. Taking too much of a supplement or substituting supplements for prescription medicines can be harmful—and even life-threatening.
  • The effects of special diets, such as a ketogenic diet, aren’t fully understood. People with ASD need to be monitored when they are on a special diet so they avoid any harmful side effects.
  • Marijuana hasn’t been studied for ASD, though there’s interest in its use by some patient groups to help with behavioral symptoms associated with ASD. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has information on many aspects of marijuana, including how chemicals in it affect people’s brain and body.
  • Talk to your child’s health care provider to get help assessing what, if any, complementary approach would help your child, since children respond differently to interventions.

For more information on ASD, please see the National Institute of Mental Health Web site, the many sources listed on the MedlinePlus Web site, and the resources below.

1 In the past, children were often excluded from research studies due to special protections, and findings from studies of adults were applied to children. Today, the National Institutes of Health requires that children be included in all studies, unless there are scientific and ethical reasons not to.

This publication is not copyrighted and is in the public domain. Duplication is encouraged.

NCCIH has provided this material for your information. It is not intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your health care provider(s). We encourage you to discuss any decisions about treatment or care with your health care provider. The mention of any product, service, or therapy is not an endorsement by NCCIH.

Last Updated: September 2017