Acupuncture is a form of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) that has been used in China for thousands of years and is slowly starting to gain momentum in the west as a form of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). In TCM theory, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is the result of an insufficiency of the brain and mind and the dysregulation of the kidney, spleen, liver, and heart. Acupuncture seeks to relieve those symptoms by correcting the dysregulation of the organ system and enlightening the mind based off the theories of the five elements (earth, water, fire, metal, and wood), Yin and Yang, Qi, blood, and bodily fluids. Needles are inserted into different acupoints along the meridians to target and correct the affected body organs and reestablish the internal balance and natural internal homeostasis.
Recently, more families are looking into acupuncture as a form of CAM to treat their children with ASD as it is perceived to be safer and a more natural form of treatment compared to sedative and anti-depressants that are commonly prescribed. There are about 40% of children with ASD who have used CAM with acupuncture being the most common treatment. With the rise in popularity of acupuncture, more studies have shown promising results and evidence of improvement in ASD symptoms in children.
One novel study, conducted by Virginia Wong and Wenxiong Chen, investigated the effect of electro-acupuncture on children with ASD. In this study, a total of fifty-five 3-18 years old children with ASD were given three sessions of electro-acupuncture every week for four weeks in which electrical stimulation was applied to eight acupoints for thirty minutes. The children that participated in this study continued their conventional educational or interventional program. At the end, the results compared the improvements between the children in the electro-acupuncture (EA) group and the sham electro-acupuncture (SEA) group where electrical stimulation with applied 3-5 mm away from the selected acupoints. All the children were randomly assigned to either EA or SEA and the parents and assessor were blinded.
The results show that there were significant improvements in the EA group compared to the SEA group in terms of language comprehension and self-care abilities as measured by professional assessors. In the parental report, there were significant improvements in EA compared to SEA in terms of social initiation, receptive language, motor skills, coordination, and attention span. Overall, in the EA group, 90% of the children showed more than 25% improvement in ASD symptoms while only 10% showed no change. There were also a few EA side effects that included needle pain, tiredness, and superficial bleeding. During the sessions, most children were able to comply with the treatment with more than 70% of the children adapting with good compliance and only 8% showing poor compliance.
Based off this study, acupuncture shows very promising results in treating children with ASD, especially in language and self-care abilities. For families considering CAM, acupuncture may be a great complementary therapy to interventional programs for treating ASD. Unlike other non-traditional therapies such as hyperbaric oxygen chambers or viral therapy, acupuncture has shown documented benefits for hundreds of years. In the United States, there is not as much awareness of TCM, but this route can prove to be very helpful and effective. However, more research should be conducted into the effectiveness of acupuncture particularly when investigating age as a factor.
Wong VC, Chen WX. Randomized controlled trial of electro-acupuncture for autism spectrum disorder. Altern Med Rev. 2010;15(2):136‐146.