Can Acupuncture Help People With Autism Spectrum Disorder?


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This article is evidence-based, verified by Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Autism is among the most prevalent disorders regularly on the rise. Based on the latest statistical analysis from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, around 1 in 59 children in 2018, were identified to have ASD or autism spectrum disorder.

While there isn’t a cure for autism, one alternative therapy has the potential to help children live a healthy life, and that is acupuncture. In this article, we will analyze all the statistical research currently available on acupuncture and autism.

You might want to consider this therapy over any other and how it can help with anxiety, speech delay, and sleep disorders in autistic children. Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about the effects of this well-known alternative Chinese therapy. 

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How Does Autism Affect Quality of Life? 

One of the most impactful disabilities that last a lifetime is autism. The same records show the average prevalence rate of this disorder in specific regions such as North America, Europe, and Asia, is estimated to be from 1% to 2%.

Patients feel, hear, and view the world in a completely different way than anyone else. ASD is a disorder that has no cure and can have a fundamental impact on a person’s quality of life, causing several mental issues, learning difficulties, communication boundaries, and multiple other conditions. 

The National Autistic Society points out that not every child or person with the condition will “look” autistic. Still, they will show a drastic change in behavior that is otherwise not present in healthy children—like, having trouble understanding facial gestures or cues, sarcasm, and tone of voice.   

Why Acupuncture? 

Conventional medicines work and help many people manage their symptoms. However, due to their high risk of side effects, most people have been turning their attention to much healthier alternatives with less impactful adverse effects. One such option for treating this disorder is acupuncture. 

According to the Journal for Alternative Therapies for Autism, this therapy can provide similar effects to conventional medicine. For the last couple of years, plenty of studies and records have analyzed the effects of acupuncture.

Due to its popularity, many researchers have tested its effects, possible side effects, and potential in treating this disability. So far, the results have been positive. 

How Can Acupuncture Help Autistic Patients? 

There is a limit to what conventional medication can do. Various therapies can help soothe the effects of autism, such as sensory, language, speech, and occupational therapy.

However, once the patient has reached their treatment limit, these therapies won’t be able to achieve favorable results.

Typical meds, on the other hand, can prove useful for keeping the autism symptoms in check. But they come with potential health risks that might compromise the patient’s health.

Acupuncture is proven to have the potential to assist with autism in many different ways. According to the National Institutes of Health, this type of alternative treatment can help people sleep better, feel happier, better about themselves, soothe their repetitive behavior, and help them overcome all the typical challenges of daily life.

In other words, anything that hinders their ability to communicate or affect their daily social interaction openly could be solved with acupuncture. Therefore, it has the potential to boost the patient’s quality of life significantly.

The Healthcare Medicine Institute also supported its effect with similar claims. Based on their statistics, around 40% of young patients with autism have selected acupuncture as their preferred alternative treatment.

Their analysis has shown that patients who’ve tried acupuncture have noticed a significant improvement in social interaction, perception, understanding, coordination, and attention to detail.

Very few patients, however, were registered to experience any side effects after treatment.

The National Library of Medicine in the U.S. has researched the treatment’s placebo effect. Their statistics have shown that acupuncture does have a potent placebo.

The positive placebo effects were closely associated with different neurocognitive mechanisms such as better memory, motivation, improved conditioning, and cognitive function, and higher expectations.

Even though this placebo effect is immensely complex, acupuncture had a lot more powerful impact than a placebo pill in the volunteers analyzed.

They showed a more potent effect than typical medication. This research states that acupuncture is highly undervalued, but it has the potential to bring in precious results.

Based on different NCBI studies issued in 2011, this alternative treatment can provide patients with both behavioral and developmental effects. The majority of the volunteers evaluated experienced overwhelmingly positive results after treatment, particularly in overcoming speech difficulties and anxiety.

Unlike other conventional treatments, acupuncture can create long-term results, which can prove immensely useful for managing the disorder in the long run. Effects such as these are significant for individuals with a more severe autism disorder.

Acupuncture for Anxiety 

Emotional disturbance, such as aggressive, self-injurious behavior, and difficult to control tantrums, are commonly associated with autism. Anxiety is another emotional disorder that some children have to deal with. For autistic patients, such emotional deregulation is typical behavior but has a major impact on the patient’s life. 

Even though not many studies have been focused on evaluating the effects of acupuncture on managing and controlling behavioral and emotional issues, there is still research that supports the effect of this treatment in alleviating anxiety.

According to a book by Chuen Heung Yau on Autism Spectrum Disorders, acupuncture showed effective results. After treatment, the volunteers evaluated became less aggressive, more patient, and less likely to trigger tantrums on a day-to-day basis.

But, most importantly, they also showed significant improvement with their anxiety and fears. This has made patients less likely to result in self-injury after scalp acupuncture.  

Acupuncture for Speech Delay 

Autism is a major contributor to neurodevelopmental issues that can range from mild to severe. These issues can impact a child’s ability to communicate openly or express themselves freely, which will cause a major burden with social interactions.

For some of the most severe cases, it could lead to repetitive behaviors. This can become a real problem when the child goes to school or has to interact with its peers.  

Based on 2018 research published in the Journal Biomed Central, the effective rate of scalp acupuncture in autistic patients was 97%. Out of the 68 children evaluated, 34.8% had noticed a significant decrease in their speech delay, which makes this treatment exceptionally beneficial for reducing verbal communication issues.  

Different research issued in Neuropsychiatry a year prior supports similar effects. Their analysis has shown that acupuncture can realign the MNS (mirror neuron system) dysfunction with its proper acupoints.

By establishing this connection, it can help children with speech delays express themselves easier. However, more research and trials are necessary to confirm this claim. 

Acupuncture for Insomnia

One of the most concerning problems with children with autism is disrupted sleep. Almost 80% of preschoolers with autism experience various sleep disorders, Spectrum analysis shows. They need more time to fall asleep, are more likely to experience insomnia or sleep apnea, experience difficulties breathing when sleeping, and more.  

This is a vulnerable time for children since they need to be able to develop physically and emotionally. If their growth and development process is hindered in any way, it will start to affect their immune system, mental, and physical health.

It will start to impair their social skills, reduce their focus, ability to stay concentrated, or even make friends. According to statistical research issued in PubMed, autistic children with sleep disorders get distracted very easily and are highly more hyperactive than their peers who sleep properly.

Since sleep disorders are two times more common in autistic children, having an alternative treatment or a method to soothe the issues can be immensely helpful.  

Based on the same book on Autism Spectrum Disorders published in 2019, scalp acupuncture can prove useful. Some of the children evaluated in their research have become less resistant to anxiety, which has made it a lot easier to fall asleep.

Post-treatment in the volunteers analyzed has shown significant improvement in their social, behavioral, and cognitive skills. While the research is inconclusive, it does show significant promise.  

This is not the only research, however, where beneficial effects of acupuncture treatment have been found in autistic children. In fact, based on Biomed Central data extraction studies, this treatment showed amazing results.

Of all 50 patients evaluated between the ages of 20months to 12 years old, 96% had shown a significant improvement in their quality of sleep. From 39% to 68% of the children now had a more restful sleep, better bowel movements, and a more positive mood. Furthermore, the study didn’t point out any side effects.   

Who Is Acupuncture Not Suitable For? 

Can Acupuncture Help People With Autism Spectrum Disorder?

This type of alternative treatment is considered a generally safe method. However, in certain cases, patients may be advised not to do acupuncture if they don’t want to compromise their health. Acupuncture is not suitable for: 

  • Patients with a bleeding disorder 
  • Individuals who consume anticoagulants 
  • People allergic to needles or anything else used during therapy 

According to the U.K.’s National Health Service, patients who take anticoagulants or have a serious bleeding disorder are best to avoid this treatment, unless their doctor advises otherwise.

Since needles will be inserted into the skin, it’s possible that a patient may experience an allergic reaction. Therefore, if your skin is sensitive to needles and can cause an allergic reaction, it’s important to stay away from it.  

But, it’s relatively safe for pregnant women. If you let your acupuncturist know of your pregnancy beforehand, they will be able to avoid certain points in your body to provide you with safe treatment. If you don’t tell them you are pregnant, you might put yourself at risk.   

However, do have in mind that some rare side effects are possible, like dizziness, fainting, sickness, drowsiness, pain, and more. If you haven’t had an acupuncture treatment before and you want to give it a try for the very first time, it’s a good idea to consult with your doctor first. 

How to Choose an Acupuncturist? 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=juOrU0HAjYA

While it may seem daunting, finding the perfect therapist for your or your child’s needs is not that difficult. But, since you are dealing with a very serious health complication, you need a highly experienced acupuncturist to help you manage the autism symptoms. There are multiple options to look for one, but you can take on the following methods: 

Ask for a referral – If you don’t believe you can handle the search alone, it’s always a good idea to ask your primary care physician to refer you to any professional acupuncturists they recommend. Ask for a bigger list so that you have more options to explore.  

Research the therapist’s credentials – Only book a session at licensed acupuncturists; otherwise, you list putting yours or your child’s health in danger. Research online if the acupuncturist you want to visit has the proper credentials to work in the state you live in. That way, you always take the right precautions. 

Check their reviews – Experienced acupuncturists have plenty of customers experience. Those who’ve booked a session will leave a review of their experience. Most of the time, their unbiased opinion can help you decide whether this acupuncturist is the right fit for your needs.  

Insurance coverage – Some acupuncturists have insurance coverage. Booking a session that is mostly covered by your insurance will help you save some of your out-of-pocket expenses.  

Conclusion 

Many people underestimate the true potential of acupuncture for autistic patients. While this alternative treatment can’t treat the core features of autism, it can improve certain psychological, physical, and emotional issues with the potential for long-term effects.

There is plenty of research to support some of its key benefits, but more studies and human trials are necessary to know the full extent and potential of this ancient Chinese practice. 

Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Dr. Ahmed Zayed, MD, holds a baccalaureate of Medicine and Surgery. An avid contributor to the Huffington Post and Chicago Tribune, Dr. Zayed believes in providing accurate and accessible information to general readers. With years of writing and editing content in the medical niche, Dr. Zayed likes to think of himself as a man with a mission, keeping the internet free of false medical information.

References 

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