Alternative therapies for developmental and learning disabilities

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Alternative therapies for developmental and learning disabilities include a range of practices used in the treatment of dyslexia, ADHD, Asperger syndrome, autism, Down syndrome and other developmental and learning disabilities. Treatments include changes in diet, dietary supplements, biofeedback, chelation therapy, homeopathy, massage and yoga. Many of these therapies are popular, but they generally rely on theories that have little scientific basis, and they lack well-controlled, large, randomized trials; the small trials that have reported beneficial effects could be explained by the ordinary waxing and waning of the underlying conditions.[1]

Treatment needs

There are a number of non-standard treatments for developmental and learning disabilities. There is a call for alternative therapies particularly when a condition lacks a reliable remediation. For example, there is no cure for autism; the main goals of mainstream behavioral and medical management are to lessen associated deficits and family distress, and to increase quality of life and functional independence.[2] Some alternative therapies, such as gluten-free, casein-free diets, may be appealing to some parents because the treatment recommended by most experts is thought to be "cold and manipulative". [3] Parents may also consider a drug treatment for attention deficit as avoidable. Alternative treatments to a stimulant medication range from natural products to psychotherapeutic techniques and highly technological interventions. It has been argued that although texts that promote alternative therapies do not directly accuse parents of inadequacy, the claims that the disability is caused by certain factors, such as poor nutrition, supports the culture of mother-blame.[4]

From 12% to 64% of families of a child with ADHD use an alternative therapy, with the lower estimates likely come from narrower definitions of CAM.[1] School teachers, family and friends are the most common source of suggestion of alternative therapies for ADHD.[5] In 2003, 64 percent of families of a child with special health care needs reported that they use alternative therapies. These therapies included spiritual healing, massage, chiropractic, herbs and special diets, homeopathy, self hypnosis and other methods of complementary and alternative medicine. The need for an alternative therapy was related to the child’s condition and to its evaluation as repairable or not.[6]

Complementary medicine

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) often lacks support in scientific evidence, so its safety and efficacy are often questionable. Some therapists who advocate CAM may claim to cure many conditions or disabilities that are not diseases and therefore cannot be "cured".[citation needed]

While some experts encourage parents to be open-minded, others argue that treatments and services with no proven efficacy have opportunity costs because they displace the opportunity to participate in efficient treatments and services.[7] According to Scott O. Lilienfeld, "many individuals who spend large amounts of time and money on ineffective treatments may be left with precious little of either. As a result, they may forfeit the opportunity to obtain treatments that could be more helpful. Thus, even ineffective treatments that are by themselves innocuous can indirectly produce negative consequences."[8]

Alleged benefits

There is often little or no scientific evidence for effectiveness of alternative therapies.[1][9] It may be difficult to separate the success of a specific treatment from natural development or from the benefits of the individual's positive attitude. Some phenomena to be considered when evaluating studies are the placebo effect, the Hawthorne effect and different types of attentional and motivational effects. However, there is no doubt that people with disabilities may benefit from some alternative therapies, at least for relaxation, social interaction, personal development and self-esteem. This can be important because many children with learning difficulties suffer from low self-esteem.

For instance, a randomised controlled trial with dyslexic children was undertaken to evaluate the efficiency of Sunflower therapy which includes applied kinesiology, physical manipulation, massage, homeopathy, herbal remedies and neuro-linguistic programming. There were no significant improvements in cognitive nor literacy test performance associated with the treatment, but there were significant improvements in self-esteem for the treatment group. This study did not control for the placebo effect.[10]


Because many alternative therapies have not been evaluated in scientific studies there may be no guarantee for their safety. In most countries, with the exception of osteopathy and chiropractic, complementary medical disciplines have not been state registered. This means there is no law to forbid anyone from setting up as a practitioner even with no qualification nor experience. There are also a lot of 'universities' offering all kinds of alternative medicine degrees for a fee, and their certificates can look very real. These organisations may, on the other hand, offer ongoing training and an insurance to their registered members.

Experts of alternative therapies advice customers to be careful when choosing a therapist. Before taking a therapy, it is wise to find out whether or not previous customers recommend it, the therapist has a qualification and is a registered practitioner, whether the therapy could be dangerous, how much the treatment costs, and whether money will be refunded if the therapy does not work.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Weber W, Newmark S (2007). "Complementary and alternative medical therapies for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism". Pediatr Clin North Am. 54 (6): 983–1006. doi:10.1016/j.pcl.2007.09.006. PMID 18061787.
  2. Myers SM, Johnson CP, Council on Children with Disabilities (2007). "Management of children with autism spectrum disorders". Pediatrics. 120 (5): 1162–82. doi:10.1542/peds.2007-2362. PMID 17967921. Lay summaryAAP (2007-10-29).
  3. Vyse, Stuart (2005), "Where Do Fads Come From?", in Jacobson, Foxx & Mulick, Controversial Therapies for Developmental Disabilities. Fad, Fashion, and Science in Professional Practice., Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, ISBN 0-8058-4192-X.
  4. Malacrida (2002). "Alternative Therapies and Attention Deficit Disorder: Discourses of Maternal Responsibility and Risk". Gender & Society. 16 (3): 366–385.
  5. Stubberfield (1999). "Utilization of alternative therapies in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder". Journal of paediatrics and child health. 35 (5): 450–453.
  6. Sanders; et al. (2003). "Use of Complementary and Alternative Medical Therapies Among Children With Special Health Care Needs in Southern Arizona". Pediatrics. 111 (3): 584–587.
  7. Newsom C. and Hovanovitz C. A. (2005), "The Nature and Value of Empirically Validated Interventions", in Jacobson, Foxx & Mulick, Controversial Therapies for Developmental Disabilities. Fad, Fashion, and Science in Professional Practice., Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, ISBN 0-8058-4192-X.
  8. Lilienfeld S. O. (2002). "Our Raison d'Être". The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. 1 (1).
  9. Lack of scientific evidence for CAM:
  10. Bull, L. (February 2007). "Sunflower therapy for children with specific learning difficulties (dyslexia): A randomised, controlled trial". Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice (1): 15–24.

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