How Placebo Treatments Fool Parents Into Thinking That Their Child With Autism Is Getting Better

By Olivia Reese, Parent Herald December 02, 04:00 am
Parents who use alternative autism treatments choose to believe that their child is getting better than accepting that they have been fooled. Usually, these treatments are placebos that don't contain any ingredient that can affect a person's health at all.
(Photo : Tom Ervin/Getty Images)

Autism is a challenging condition not just for children who have it but to their parents as well. More often than not, these parents look for ways to ease their child's symptoms and make his or her quality of life better. While some parents have their child undergo therapies for their autism, others resort to unconventional methods such as placebo treatments.

Leigh Merryday Porch is one of those parents who subscribed to placebo treatments for their child's autism. Merryday Porch's nearly two-year-old son, Callum, has delayed speech and motor skills due to his autism, according to The Atlantic.

Merryday Porch brought Callum to the controversial Florida doctor, Jeff Bradstreet, who vocally opposed vaccines and a supporter of alternative autism treatments such as chelation therapy -- a chemical process involving EDTA (ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid). Bradstreet subjected Callum to an array of odd tests and prescribed him a strict gluten-free diet and other supplements such as cod liver.

After six months, Merryday Porch believed that Callum was responding to his treatments. The child, who lacked language skills, was naming television characters all of a sudden. However, Merryday Porch remained doubtful over Bradstreet's potentially harmful methods. There came a time when Merryday Porch finally had enough and refused to bring Callum to Bradstreet's office again.

Merryday Porch said that Bradstreet's therapies "were a waste of time and money" and that all of Callum's improvements during the treatment "were either in her imagination or the natural course of his development." However, she also empathizes with the parents of children with autism who go to doctors like Bradstreet.

Merryday Porch said that such treatments are "a placebo, but a placebo for the parent." Parents choose to believe that their child is getting better than accepting that they have been fooled. Other alternative treatments for autism are secretin therapy (transdermal secretin and oral secretin study) and nutritional therapies (vitamin B-12, pancreatic enzymes, calcium, aloe vera, omega-3 fatty acids, flower of sulphur, and intramuscular or intravenous magnesium, among others), The Healing Center On-Line listed.

A placebo is defined as "anything that seems to be a 'real' medical treatment -- but isn't." This fake treatment in the form of a pill or a shot doesn't carry an active ingredient that can affect a person's health.

Placebos can also have physiological effects that trigger "the release of neurotransmitters and other brain chemicals, the same way that a prescription drug might," The Atlantic added. This could explain why families of children with autism think that alternative treatments are working. Parents are the ones who report their observations about their child's behavior instead of the child, and their hopes that their kid is getting better subjectively affect these observations.

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