“I’m sorry Mrs. Campbell, I am not sure what to tell you,” The doctor stated sympathetically, “Your son’s symptoms are not responding the way we had hoped. There is one treatment that we could try.”
Mrs. Campbell looked up with desperate anticipation, “We would try anything to help our boy”.
The doctor continued, “It is a controversial treatment, and it may not be effective. It’s called Chelation therapy.”
He handed her a pamphlet as he explained that he would help her and her husband find out more about it. If they decided to go ahead with the treatment, he could refer them to the therapist as well.
If you are reading this you may be curious and have questions about if chelation therapy for autism is something that could be a good fit for your family. In this article I will be diving into the subject of chelation therapy and hopefully, answering these questions and more.
What is chelation therapy?
Basically, chelation therapy is done using medication that seeks out and sticks to metals and minerals in the bloodstream, and rids the body of them while passing with them through urination. These medicines can be administered via IV or orally in pill form.
What is it used for?
Chelation therapy is used to rid the body of toxic heavy metals such as mercury and lead. If the body has sustained heavy metal poisoning, it can be fatal. In this way, chelation therapy can be life saving.
It has been used for other ailments as well. Although not proven to be beneficial, it has been used for things like:
- cardiovascular disease control
- autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
- lowering blood pressure
- Alzheimer’s disease control
What are the proven benefits of chelation treatment?
The only proven benefit to chelation therapy is to treat heavy metal poisoning. Despite this, chelation therapy continues to be used for a variety of conditions. The problem is, the risks can outweigh the benefits.
What are the dangers of chelation therapy?
In every commercial for medication, it seems, people are encouraged to speak with their doctor to find out if it is right for them. Then they are given the possible side effects and warnings, and told that their doctor can determine if the benefits outweigh the risks.
One of the dangers of chelation is that it is used for many ailments and conditions that it was never meant to be used for. Its ineffectiveness combined with its dangers makes it a very risky choice.
“Unnecessary chelation therapy is expensive, can cause significant acute adverse effects, and may be associated with long-term consequences.” Brent J. (2013)
The expense could be financial, additional sickness, and even death. Here are some of the side effects of chelation treatment:
Short term side effects
- abdominal pain
Long term harm
- hypocalcaemia (low calcium)
- renal impairment
These can be worse than the core symptoms they were seeking to eliminate.
Should chelation therapy be used to treat autism spectrum disorders?
“Approximately half a million patients with autism spectrum disorders are subjected to chelation therapy in the US annually.” Brent J. (2013) This does not mean that these cases are justified, outside of the ones who were treated for heavy metal poisoning who just happened to also have an autism spectrum disorders diagnosis.
Many people wonder if chelation therapy should be used to treat autism spectrum disorders. First we need to understand why this treatment was considered in the first place.
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Why chelation therapy for autism spectrum disorders?
The idea behind using chelation therapy as an autism treatment was based on the suggestion that more severe symptoms of autism spectrum disorder were caused by a buildup of metals in the body. One study, Chelation for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) systematic review, highlighted the suggestion: “that excretion of these heavy metals brought about by use of pharmaceutical chelating agents (chemicals that are injected into the bloodstream to bind to and remove toxic heavy metals from the body) may lead to improvement of symptoms.”
It makes sense right? If metals are the cause, removing them would “fix” it? Let’s find out what science tells us.
Research, autism, and chelation therapy
The autism research institute says, “Neurotoxicity of lead is a well-documented medical problem in children, and in the past several years many children with autism have been documented to have high levels of lead in urine after undergoing chelation therapy. The parameters for determining which children should undergo chelation are not clearly established. Developing a more precise measure of lead exposure and absorption may help evaluate lead exposure and chelation effectiveness.“
So, the plot thickens. Children with ASD may be at a higher risk of having elevated levels of lead in their blood. This may explain why so many children with ASD are undergoing chelation treatment. This begs the question however, why would kids with ASD have more lead in their systems?
Healthcare research is subject to so many things. When studying certain phenomena and how it relates to others, things can get a little hairy. This subject is the perfect example.
For some time the belief that childhood vaccines containing mercury cause autism has circulated. This is simply not true. However, if you think about it, if it were true, then removing mercury from the blood would be a logical idea to consider.
So much of the science behind these beliefs has been disproven, yet they still exist. It is important to note that most of them come from a place of caring and a desire to help not hurt. That doesn’t change the fact, though, some of them do the opposite of helping.
Does lead poisoning cause autism spectrum disorder? Does ASD somehow make a person’s body absorb lead more? I needed to know, and here is what I found.
The answer may lie in the fact that, with autism comes the greater risk of other complications and conditions like pica. In a study called Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder and Lead Poisoning: Diagnostic Challenges and Management Complexities we learn: “any association of ASD and lead poisoning is more likely secondary to pica habits, the compulsive chewing and eating of nonfood items, seen commonly in children with ASD.
“This behavior puts them at high risk for exposure to lead-containing dust and other lead-contaminated objects. The association between such pica behaviors and a higher risk of lead poisoning was described as early as 1976 by Cohen et al.5
“Another study confirmed that children with ASD are more likely to be re-exposed to sources of lead contamination than children without ASD.6 Unfortunately, the normal hand-mouth behaviors and oral exploratory habits of infancy, which usually extinguish within the preschool years, can persist in children with ASD well into later childhood and beyond such that their risk for lead contamination continues. While these pica behaviors continue, these children also continue to grow taller and stronger, allowing them access to new surfaces and areas of households that may contain lead hazards not previously accessible to them at a younger age.”
Wow, so this explains why children with ASD can be at an increased risk for lead poisoning. It could be due to behaviors that put them in contact with lead more often and for longer in their lives than other children. This led me to question whether or not exposure to lead could actually cause ASD.
In the same study I learned, “Symptoms of ASD share some similar characteristics to the symptoms of lead neurotoxicity noted above.7 For example, DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition) criteria for ASD, as detailed by the American Psychiatric Association, includes persistent deficits in social-emotional reciprocity and nonverbal communicative behaviors.30
“Significant language delay and coexisting intellectual disability are notable in many children with ASD.31 In addition to neurologic and behavioral symptoms, both childhood lead poisoning and ASD are often associated with poor appetite, restricted food choices, and gastrointestinal symptoms, such as constipation or abdominal discomfort.
“These similarities may prompt parents and clinicians to wonder whether lead poisoning in a child can cause ASD, and if there might, therefore, be a treatable cause of their child’s ASD. However, current scientific evidence does not support this hypothesis.”
Realizing that lead poisoning and autism share so many symptoms should be a clue that further evidence is needed before referring a child for chelation therapy. They may need chelation therapy for lead exposure, not autism. An ASD diagnosis is much different in its treatment requirements, than lead poisoning.
What did the scientific evidence show?
These studies have clued us in to why so many children with autism are treated through chelation. But, does it actually work? What are the risks involved in undergoing these procedures and are they worth it?
Many tests have been done using pharmaceutical chelation agents. The results showed no improvements in symptoms. Therefore,“no clinical trial evidence was found to suggest that pharmaceutical chelation is an effective intervention for ASD.” James S, Stevenson SW, Silove N, Williams K (2015)
There doesn’t seem to be any reason whatsoever to use chelation therapy to treat ASD alone. It can be dangerous, and is inadequate at best at treating the symptoms of autism.
It’s natural for parents to want the absolute best for their children. Parents seeking alleviation of the most severe of their child’s autism symptoms have turned to chelation therapy for autism treatment. Unlike many other complementary and alternative medicine options, chelation therapy can have serious and long term consequences.
Some symptoms of autism can be scary and seem to hold our children back. Parents thinking about chelation therapy to treat autism should know that the absence of scientific evidence, the risk of side effects, and further trials being necessary, all point to the reality that chelation treatment may not be effective and could even harm their child.
Seeking to advocate for our children sometimes includes saying no to things even doctors offer. It is important to be informed and get second opinions when needed. We know our children best.
Brent J. (2013). Commentary on the abuse of metal chelation therapy in patients with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of medical toxicology : official journal of the American College of Medical Toxicology, 9(4), 370–372. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13181-013-0345-4
James S, Stevenson SW, Silove N, Williams K. (2015) Chelation for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 5. Art. No.: CD010766. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD010766.pub2.
Hauptman, M., Stierman, B., & Woolf, A. D. (2019). Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder and Lead Poisoning: Diagnostic Challenges and Management Complexities. Clinical pediatrics, 58(6), 605–612. https://doi.org/10.1177/0009922819839237