Ask the Experts: The Homeopathic Treatment of Autism
by Amy Rothenberg, ND
Question: I’m exploring different alternative therapies for use with my 8 year-old son with autism. Can you tell me more about homeopathy?
Homeopathy is a distinct medical art and science which employs tiny doses of natural medicines to stimulate the body’s inborn healing capacity. The homeopath strives to perceive each patient’s individual physical, mental and emotional nature, trying always to prescribe for the person, rather than the diagnosis.
Homeopathy was first conceived by Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843) a German physician and chemist. Troubled by the harshness of medical protocols of his time as well as by personal family tragedies, he turned away from medical practice and devoted himself to the work of scientific translation. It was during his work on a translation of a popular book on botanical medicine, Cullen’s Materia Medica from the English into German that he became intrigued with the portion written on Cinchona bark- from which quinine was eventually derived- and the close relationship between its effectiveness and its toxicity. His curiosity was ignited.
He undertook what was essentially the first drug trial, known as a proving, giving healthy subjects samples of the substance in question and seeing what, if any, effect it had upon them. To his surprise, in the case of Cinchona bark, a number of participants developed the very symptoms that the herbal preparation was known to help.
From this observation was born similia similibus curantur; from the Latin, “likes are cured by likes.” This essential underpinning of homeopathic practice can be further defined as follows: any drug capable of producing morbid symptoms in the healthy will remove similar symptoms occurring as an expression of disease. In his lifetime, Hahnemann conducted provings on some 106 substances. He worked diligently and wrote prolifically on topics of homeopathic philosophy, the treatment of chronic disease as well as the Materia Medica Pura, one of the earliest homeopathic drug compendiums available.
Families with members on the autistic spectrum seek homeopathic care for many reasons. Some families seek help because they have always used natural medicine for their health concerns and this fits into a philosophical paradigm which is consistent with the family.
Some feel they are making progress with the programs they have put together for their family member but now a physical plane issue is getting in the way of the progress. For instance, a child who gets frequent upper respiratory tract problems which lead to asthma; each time the child becomes ill, he or she may lose ground in the sphere of communication. The homeopath is looked upon to help prevent and treat such infections and illnesses.
Other people find themselves in our offices because they are dissatisfied with drug treatments which have been attempted for certain elements of their child’s condition; be it attention deficit or obsessive compulsive disorder or anxiety. The medication for this sensitive child isn’t working, isn’t working well enough or is causing side-effects which are deemed unacceptable.
Some parents have come to us out of sheer desperation. Nothing else is working. They have tried changes in the diet, nutritional or botanical supplements, working various behavioral and educational approaches and their loved one is still locked up in a world all their own or perhaps has become violent.
By and large, most of the people we see for the treatment of autism have been referred by someone else who has had some success using homeopathy. This word of mouth, underscored and amplified by the Internet, has led many patients to our office. We are repeatedly amazed and inspired by the tireless efforts of parents on behalf of their children to seek out and secure help and support.
Homeopathy is based on a number of philosophical principles. First is the concept of the Law of Similars mentioned above.
Secondly is the concept of treating the whole person. The homeopathic remedy best suited for an individual is one that takes into account the patient’s mental, emotional and physical attributes, thereby making homeopathy, by definition, a holistic approach to healing.
Thirdly, homeopaths are instructed to use the least amount of medicine to accomplish the job. In other words, we work with minimal doses of the homeopathic medicines to help insure the least potential for side effects. This is particularly beneficial to our patients with autistic spectrum disorders as so many of them are quite sensitive overall and sensitive to medication.
Homeopathic medicines are quite safe: they are known to be non-allergenic, non-toxic, and free of side effects. They are prepared from herbal, mineral, and animal substances by homeopathic pharmacies, under strict guidelines established by the FDA. Those practicing homeopathy include naturopathic physicians, medical doctors, chiropractors, osteopathic physicians, as well as trained professional homeopaths.
The in-depth interview process delves deeply into the patient’s physical, mental, and emotional nature. The remedy is chosen by the practitioner only after an interview and analysis. Classical homeopathy, such as that practiced in our office, adheres to the originally conceived idea that the prescriber encouraged to offer only one remedy at a time.
My husband, Paul Herscu ND, and I have worked with many autistic patients, from those with Asperger’s Syndrome to those who are profoundly autistic. Most every child has made some improvement, some subtle, others dramatic. A handful have had their diagnoses then questioned. We have had previously mute children begin to speak and those who cannot make eye contact begin to do so. We have seen many children be better able to learn and interact in social settings, and have watched families begin to enjoy some peaceful times with their children. We have had some resounding failures too, like most people who work with autistic patients.
Some of these children we work with have been vaccine injured; others were never vaccinated. We have worked with numerous families where more than one person was diagnosed on the autistic spectrum. There are many routes to autism, many we do not yet know.
Most all of the autistic patients we see are undergoing other treatments at the same time, from behavioral to nutritional to secretin to chelation and everything in between. Homeopathy does not appear to interfere. However, as it is difficult to determine which treatments are working when multiple methods are in place, we discourage parents from adding anything new when a homeopathic remedy is started.
For first-aid and acute conditions which occur in people with autism (as well as everyone else) for the vast majority of situations there are a limited number of homeopathic remedies that would be considered. Remedies used over and over again include: Aconite, Belladonna, Pulsatilla, Chamomilla, Sulphur, Arnica, Mercurius, and Arsenicum album. I truly do not know where I would be as a physician and as a mother without these dear friends in the medicine cabinet.
Thankfully, there are wonderful books on acute prescribing, written in a way that enables a parent to choose the correct remedy for things like bee stings, sore throats, teething, and diarrhea. Most of these books will also caution parents as to when it is necessary to seek further medical care. No one wants to put a child at risk because of a philosophical belief in natural treatment. There is a time and a place for all types of medicine.
For constitutional pre-scribing for symptoms associated with autism, I need to understand all aspects of the child, not just the particular diagnosis, but how the child manifests their problem in all the minute details. This happens in an in-office, in-person interview which lasts for 1-2 hours. I ask questions, make observations and interact with both patient and caregiver. I need to understand little things, like what and how they eat and how they sleep; things related to temperament and personality, like how they behave with new children or changes in routine. I need to understand what will really set them off and what might calm them down. I will be interested in the mother’s pregnancy and in the child’s earliest months, their development as well as their experience of daycare or school. We try to put the child’s illnesses into the context of the rest of their lives and understand them in a complete way. Naturally, I will be observing the relationship between parent and child, how clingy they are, how they respond to limit-setting, how they communicate with each other-or not. For this sort of constitutional care, it is good to have an objective person prescribe (i.e., not the parent!) and to follow the child over time.
Parents often wonder about the time frame of seeing the effects of a constitutional remedy. We often see influences within that first week, but like to wait at least four to six weeks before actually assessing the prescribed remedy. This way, we can see patterns and tendencies more clearly while giving the remedy a chance to act. We try to treat children over the course of years as it allows us to address physical, mental and emotional concerns which arise with the various stresses of family life, school, hormones, etc. Some of our patients have dramatic results in short order, for others the path is more winding; this has to do with the particular manifestation of the diagnosis, genetic inheritance, other illnesses also present, other treatments being tried, as well as other factors that affect the child.
There are many licensed practitioners of homeopathy: MDs, NDs, DOs, NPs- most of whom have studied either on their own or through training programs. There are also professional homeopaths, who do not have an orthodox medical background. It is best to bring your child to someone who has experience treating individuals with autism. For a referral, see our resource list. The best source of referral is often word of mouth.
I have always enjoyed treating people in my practice who present on the autistic spectrum. I suppose it is their individuality, their quirkiness coupled with my deep desire to help them and their families that makes each case so interesting. There are no cures for autism. However, homeopathy is a gentle, holistic approach to improve the health and functioning of these wonderful and unique patients.
Amy Rothenberg ND is a licensed naturopathic physician with a private practice in Enfield, Connecticut with her husband, Paul Herscu. She teaches for the New England School of Homeopathy in Amherst, Massachusetts and lectures widely on topics in natural medicine. For further information you can visit the web site www.nesh.com.
This article was reprinted with permission from the March-April 2004 issue of the Autism Asperger’s Digest, a 52-page bimonthly magazine on autism spectrum disorders. For more information: