Treating autism with alternative solutions

July 21, 2010

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By Sue Thoensen
Daily Pilot
Published April 2007

April is Autism Awareness Month, and for Lisa Ackerman of Newport Beach, whose son Jeff, 10, is autistic, her organization — Talk About Curing Autism — is doing a lot more than just talking about it.

Ackerman and her husband formed the nonprofit parent group in Huntington Beach when her son was diagnosed seven years ago, because her then-17-year-old daughter, Lauren, was tired of hearing her parents complain about the lack of information they were getting at the meetings they were attending.

As a result, Ackerman makes sure that her organization provides families with autistic children educational material, financial support, medical assistance, and a family environment where they can be with other people who know what they're going through.

Ackerman said as parents, she and her husband didn't know enough, they needed to do something for their son, and she wanted help from the community.

"Having a child with autism is so isolating. We just wanted people we could have a barbecue with in our backyard. People who wouldn't look at us funny because our [son] was flapping [his arms] in the corner, doing something he couldn't help," Ackerman said.

The Autism Society of America defines autism as a neurological disorder affecting a child's ability to speak and to interact with other people and their surroundings.

Children with autism often repeat words, phrases and movements, and can be unresponsive to verbal prompts — appearing as if they are deaf, when their hearing tests in the normal range.

When Ackerman's son was diagnosed at the age of 2-and-a-half — and she can tell you the exact date and time — one in 500 children were being diagnosed with autism.

It is estimated that autism now appears in 1 in 150 births in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control Prevention, 2007, and this number is on the rise.

The Ackermans were advised by three doctors that they might have to look into institutional placement for their son because he was "moderate to severely autistic, and you and your husband need to get on with your life."

For Ackerman, that option was out of the question.

Jeff stopped speaking at 18 months, and didn't speak again until he was 5 years old, and Ackerman credits a combination of traditional therapies — behavioral, speech and occupational, and medical intervention — with enabling her son, now a third-grader, to carry on a conversation and attend Paularino Elementary, a public school in Costa Mesa.

Alternative medical treatments, including a wheat- and dairy-free diet, have also been used successfully in the treatment of autism according to Ackerman, and the Autism Research Institute.

But for Ackerman, and other parents of the children in their group, the most dramatic treatment they have discovered is hyperbaric oxygen therapy (pressurized oxygen treatments in hyperbaric chambers), a treatment that has helped brain injury and stroke patients in the past. And now, according to Ackerman, and Donald Jolly at the Whitaker Wellness Institute in Newport Beach, many autistic children are benefiting as well.

Ackerman sees similarities between autistic children and stroke patients — the same speech pattern difficulties and gastro-intestinal problems — and the hyperbaric treatments help reduce inflammation, both in the intestinal tract and the brain, which relieves many of the symptoms associated with the disorder.

Ackerman said as many as 140 children from the Talk About Curing Autism families have seen improvement ranging from marked to dramatic in their speech and physical disabilities since beginning the treatments.

The Whitaker Institute sees autistic children ranging in age from 3 to 11 years old, and Jolly says that in addition to hearing from parents and teachers that the child has improved focus, is better able to communicate and is functioning better in the classroom, he is "really impressed" with the change in attitude he sees in the children after five or six treatments.

"When the kids first come in for treatment, many of them fight, scream, even kick when it's time to go in the chamber," Jolly says.

Jolly has observed that after the treatments, children seem much more comfortable, and he attributes that to the effects of the oxygen treatments.

Ackerman's son has hyperbaric oxygen treatments weekly at the California Integrative Hyperbaric Center in Irvine, and she goes in the chamber with him to watch movies, do homework, play games, or just "hang out."

Ackerman says, "It doesn't feel like therapy."

And Jeff has gone from one-word statements to, "Hi Mom. How was your day?"

Ackerman wants to be sure information about traditional and alternative therapies is available to parents of autistic children, and she believes traditional therapies won't work unless you can solve the child's medical issues as well.

The goal at Talk About Curing Autism is for children to be self-sufficient, and Ackerman says that every family who attends one of their meetings is given a free "Families With Autism Journey Guide," containing medical and reference information as well as practical advice and support.

Talk About Curing Autism will sponsor a seminar on autism from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. April 28, 2007 at Vineyard Newport Church, 102 Baker St. East, Costa Mesa.

Featured speakers will be journalist and writer David Kirby, whose book "Evidence of Harm" deals with the link between the rise of autism in children and toxic levels of mercury found in vaccines given to those same children in infancy, and Florida pediatrician Jerry Kartzinel, who specializes in the treatment of autism. For more information, visit the Talk About Curing Autism website at tacanow.org.

Other community groups are joining in the effort to promote autism awareness this month, including:

• Regal Entertainment Group has partnered with Autism Speaks to air 30-second public service announcements before every film shown on over 6,386 screens across the country from April 6 through 12.

• The Newport Beach Film Festival will air the documentary, "Autism Every Day," at 6:30 p.m. April 23, 2007 at the Regency Lido Theater, 3459 Via Lido, Newport Beach.

• Easter Seals and Vons/Pavilions markets in Southern California will offer customers the option to contribute to Easter Seals at every check-out counter during the month of April, with 100% of those funds benefiting services for people with autism.