Center hopes to offer alternative treatment for autism

If more people are being diagnosed with autism, the number of people with the disorder is increasing -- right? Not necessarily. It's a major point of debate in the world of autism. Some believe that environmental or biological changes have create...

If more people are being diagnosed with autism, the number of people with the disorder is increasing -- right?

Not necessarily.

It's a major point of debate in the world of autism. Some believe that environmental or biological changes have created the increase, while others believe that better understanding of the disorder has led to improved recognition and diagnosis.

"We know what to look for, we're looking harder and we're looking earlier," said Dr. Scott Myers, a neurodevelopmental pediatrician and member of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

For now it's a huge office space, more than 7,000 square feet, empty except for a desk and a few chairs.


But by sometime in January, it could either be the answer to the prayers of desperate parents or another in the long line of false hopes and ineffective treatments for people with autism.

To Julie Priola, executive director of the Autism Treatment Center and Resource Center at 1917 W. Superior St. in Duluth, it will be nothing less than the best treatment available in northern Minnesota -- or perhaps anywhere else -- for anyone with autism spectrum disorder. Autism is a developmental disability that causes sometimes severe problems with behavior, social interaction and communication.

The basic idea behind most treatments the center will offer: Change the diet and correct chemical and nutrient imbalances in people with autism, and their function can dramatically improve or even return to normal.

It's not a cure, Priola said. But she, along with many families and practitioners, believes it's as close as it gets.

"The treatments can improve function, can improve cognitive ability, can reduce or eliminate behavioral issues," she said. "No other treatments or therapies can provide as much return in function and ability as the treatments we can provide."

Because she promises what many others can't -- or won't -- parents and patients could flock from northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, Upper Michigan, Canada and possibly even elsewhere in the country seeking treatment.

Will they find what they're looking for? Possibly not, because some of the therapies, biomedical treatments, are at best unproven, some autism researchers and experts believe.

"No one knows or can say for certain whether [alternative treatments] work," said Dr. Scott Myers, a neurodevelopment pediatrician with the Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Penn., and member of the executive committee of the council on children with disabilities with the American Academy of Pediatrics. "Unfortunately, families are often exposed to unsubstantiated theories based on anecdotes and testimonials and a high degree of plausibility."


Though Priola and others say they have science to back them up, she concedes that for now the center will mostly provide treatment that hasn't been thoroughly tested by the established medical community and is considered alternative medicine.

She said that because she's seen firsthand how the treatment can change a life -- her son's -- she wants to provide the same treatment to others. And, she said, she doesn't want those in need to wait to see if research science proves her right.


Like many parents of children with autism, Priola turned to alternative treatment after becoming frustrated with mainstream medicine.

Priola's 22-year-old son, who asked that his name not be used for this story, was diagnosed when he was 14 with Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of autism.

"I was told there were no treatments for autism," she said.

After several years of research, Priola said she learned her son probably had high levels of sugar in his blood. About 36 hours after removing sugars and high-glycemic foods from his diet, Priola said her son no longer had mental illness, mania or sleep disturbances.

"It was that sudden and miraculous," she said.


Priola said because her journey to discover her son's proper treatment took years and left a heavy emotional and financial toll, she doesn't want to see that happen to other families.

"I couldn't just sit back on my laurels and say I found what it was, when there are other children and families who are struggling and don't have resources for treatment in this area," she said.

But there's no guarantee the center will open. Priola and her board of directors still need to hire a physician and raise money.

To operate on an estimated $350,000 budget for the first year, which will include offering services on a sliding-fee scale, Priola said she's depending on financial support from the community. So far, Priola said the center has received $2,000 in individual donations, and she and the board have put $9,000 of their own money into the organizations.

Priola said they are still waiting to hear on grant applications.

Still, the likelihood of the center opening, Priola said, "is 100 percent."

"The need is too great in this community not to open," she said. "No matter what it takes, we will open."



If the center opens, the question for those who visit will be: Do the treatments work?

That question points to a larger debate between those in mainstream and alternative science on how best to treat people with autism.

Many people with autism and their families can provide anecdotal evidence that alternative treatments are successful, with some pointing to studies they say back them up.

The suburban Chicago-based Pfeiffer Treatment Center, which Priola said will serve as the basis for much of the Duluth center's treatments, essentially corrects chemical and protein imbalances in the body. That, according to the center, often can correct even the most violent behavior in people with autism, "including assaultive and destructive incidents."

Children with severe autism often bite themselves or slam their heads against the wall; can hit, kick or bite others; or destroy household items.

Dr. William Walsh, director of the center, said the center surveyed its patients in 2004 and found that 88 percent reported "a reduced frequency of destructive incidents and 53 percent achieved elimination of the behavior."

"We've had a number of children with severe autism who no longer show any symptoms," he said.

Since opening in June 1989, the center has become one of the popular places to treat autism in the world, with 23,000 patients visiting from more than 75 countries, said Rita Pallaschke, the financial assistance coordinator for the center.


But many in mainstream research science say studies cited by alternative researchers aren't valid. They believe that not enough study has been done and caution against using anecdotal evidence when deciding on appropriate treatment for autism.

Some previous autism therapies considered "alternative," such as injecting secretin, a hormone involved in digestion once thought to cause autism symptoms,didn't have scientific evidence behind them and were later found to be ineffective.

"Even if they're [physically] harmless, they can still take time away from valid therapies and can be costly to families in a financial sense," said Dr. Thomas Challman, a pediatrician who specializes in neurodevelopment pediatrics with the Geisinger Institute.

Challman points parents who want to learn about successful therapies to the Association for Science in Autism Treatment's Web site, , a site that says many of the biomedical therapies that will be offered at the center need to be researched.

Studies have shown that more mainstream treatments such as speech and behavioral therapy, as well as occupational and physical therapy -- which are offered in various forms at the Scottish Rite clinic, SMDC's Polinsky Medical Rehabilitation Center and the University of Minnesota Duluth -- can be effective and teach children skills. They don't come close to offering a cure, however, as some alternative therapies claim to do.

For now, Challman said, treatments such as those to be offered by the Autism Treatment and Resource Center fall into the category of theory.

Priola predicts that someday "the traditional medical community will be providing these metabolic treatments."

But because most children who receive treatment early in life show better results, she said, "you do not want to wait 20 or 30 years for these to be accessible. Time is of the essence."


BRANDON STAHL covers health. He can be reached at (218) 720-4154 or by e-mail at .

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