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Acupuncture: Can It Help Treat Autism?

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are neurodevelopmental disorders that generally are characterized by communication impairments and poor social skills. Anxiety, hyperactivity, depression, short attention span, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors are additional symptoms. Some individuals with ASD also exhibit irritability, aggression, negativity, and explosive emotions.
Treatment of autism spectrum disorders typically includes behavioral therapy, medications, and speech, occupational, and physical therapies. However, acupuncture, which is a common treatment for autism in Chinese medicine, is now receiving increased attention in the U.S.

What Research Shows

While more research on the safety and effectiveness of acupuncture is needed, emerging clinical trials have shown some success. According to a review of published research, improvement was reported in children with autism spectrum disorders who received some form of acupuncture treatment.
Several Chinese studies, including a study conducted at the University of Hong Kong, reported a decrease in repetitive behaviors and improved language communication and social interaction skills among study participants. Children with ASD who received acupuncture treatment also showed improvement in attention span, gross and fine motor skills, and coordination.

How Chinese Medicine Views Autism

Different from Western medicine, which considers autism a type of brain dysfunction, traditional Chinese medicine views autism as an imbalance of body functions, which may cause delays in speech and motor skills. Chinese medicine focuses on treating illness and disease by achieving energy balance in the body and its organs.
Chinese medicine operates on the premise that imbalance in certain organ systems can affect an individual's emotions, behavior, and cognition. For instance, imbalance affecting the heart can lead to poor concentration and memory. The spleen is linked to worry; therefore, imbalance may cause obsessive thinking and depression — other frequent symptoms of autism.

Why Opioid Receptors Are Important

While the causes of autism spectrum disorders remain unknown, opioid receptors in the brain may play a role. These receptors affect areas of the brain that control social-emotional processes. Since acupuncture helps regulate opioid activity in the brain, treatment may help calm anxiety and frustration — common issues in children with ASD.

What Techniques Practitioners Use

Although an acupuncturist may vary the use of body acupuncture, electro-acupuncture, and acupressure, the effectiveness of any of these techniques depends on the choice of acupuncture points (acupoints) along the body meridians and type of stimulation.
While traditional acupoints on the body may be effective in treating children with some type of brain dysfunction, scalp and tongue acupuncture show promise in treating autism.
Scalp Acupuncture
Some research suggests that scalp acupuncture may help improve language skills in particular. Scalp acupuncture involves the practitioner inserting needles below the surface of the scalp.
Some practitioners use a technique that requires attaching the needles to a device that passes a small, pulsating electrical current between pairs of acupuncture needles. In other cases, practitioners use manual techniques to stimulate the acupuncture points.

Tongue Acupuncture

Acupuncture on the tongue, which contains more than 40 acupoints, may help improve language, social interaction, and cognition in children with autism. A child's level of functional improvement may vary depending on his or her age and severity of impairments or delays.
Stimulation of certain tongue acupoints reconnect the neural circuit to the cerbellum — the part of the brain that receives information from the body's sensory systems. Tongue acupuncture resignals the steroid hormone cortisol and the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, reactivating dysfunctional pathways involved in sensory perception. This may help those with autism spectrum disorders to process information more effectively.
If you are looking for an alternative treatment approach to improve the effectiveness of other therapeutic interventions for a loved one with autism spectrum disorder, contact the staff at Palmetto Acupuncture and Holistic Health Clinic.
Palmetto Acupuncture And Holistic Health Clinic
1825 Sumter St.
Columbia, SC 29201

Phone: 803-806-8889
Fax: 803-806-8893
Office Hours:
Monday, 8:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.
Tuesday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.
Saturday, 8:30 a.m.-2 p.m.