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Exploring The Use of Nutritional Interventions in Treating Behavioral Symptoms of Autism in Children

Commonly, parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often opt to use dietary or nutritional interventions instead of medicinal treatments when dealing with some of the behavioral symptoms associated with autism. Dr. Hajar Mazahery and a team of researchers at Massey University in New Zealand took the opportunity to investigate the efficacy of two major dietary supplements – Vitamin D and Omega-3 – in soothing irritability and hyperactivity in children with autism.

The team chose to study 111 children between the age of 2.5 to 8 years over a period of 12 months. The children were assigned to 1 of 4 different treatment groups: those receiving Vitamin D, those receiving Omega-3, those receiving both supplements, and those receiving a placebo. Irritability and hyperactivity were measured using the Abberant Behavior Checklist (ABC) at both the baseline period and at the end of the 12 months. For reference, the ABC is a psychological symptom checklist often used in measuring the severity of symptoms and behaviors across 5 different domains (irritability and hyperactivity being 2 of them). To ensure reliability, biomarkers were also recorded at the beginning and end of the study, and caregivers were surveyed weekly to chronicle adherence to the supplement schedule and dosage. At the end of the study, the results of the treatment indicated that both Vitamin D and Omega-3 reduced irritability symptoms in children with autism when compared to the placebo treatment. However, only Vitamin D was evidenced to reduce hyperactivity when compared to the placebo.

One of the major strengths of this study was that the research team made a very calculated effort in acknowledging the flaws of previous trials that also investigated the efficacy of same supplements. In fact, they even recognized the shortcomings of one of their own studies targeting Vitamin D and Omega-3, by criticizing the lack of specificity and subsequent inconclusive results that ensued. The research team’s decision to narrow the scope of the study to examine the behavioral symptoms of irritability and hyperactivity was crucial in order to reach the conclusion. They recognized the need for answers within the greater autism community, given that so many families (and even the science itself) are steering away from the use of pharmacological agents when treating the behavioral symptoms of children with ASD.

The primary weakness present in this study is the limited amount of data due to subject dropout. Of the 111 children initially present at the baseline (beginning) point of the study, only 66 percent actually completed the study. As a result, the treatment groups had somewhat uneven numbers that may have potentially altered the data. Additionally, it may also prove valuable for the team to conduct further studies broken down by age group as there could be discrepancies in the efficacy of treatment between a toddler and an older child.

In the future, it would be useful for the effects of these dietary supplements to be applied to behavioral symptoms associated with ASD other than irritability or hyperactivity. Given the prevalence of Vitamin D and Omega-3 use by parents and caregivers in treating their children, it would be worthwhile to investigate whether or not these supplements are useful interventions for other symptoms of autism.

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