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The Integrative Approach to Autism


Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has been named as such because of the “spectrum” of symptoms assigned to the disorder.  As a pediatrician for over 40 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that a spectrum of treatments is likewise required to heal these patients.  And while each autistic child presents differently, I’ve found they all improve with the proper nutritional and biomedical interventions.  Combining proper medical attention with communication, behavioral, and social therapies provides the spectrum of support needed to help these children thrive.

Why Take an Integrative Approach to Autism?

Integrative medicine, by its nature, combines therapies and treatment approaches to ensure the best results for patients.  Looking at the big picture is especially important for autistic children and their families.  Parents of autistic children need many tools to help their kids (and themselves), both physically and psychologically. The integrative medicine approach addresses the root causes of the disorder, which comprises complex metabolic problems including:  dysfunction of the gut, the immune system, and the detoxification system as well as nutritional depletion.

A multi-disciplinary approach helps break down a child’s problems and offers solutions from a wide range of sources, both conventional and complementary.  While each child is unique, there are three foundational systems in the body to focus on first: the immune system, digestive system, and central nervous system.  These three systems act as one organ and are in constant communication with each other.

For example, both the brain and gut make serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter critical for a feeling of well-being.  A patient with leaky gut (a condition where the gut lining has been damaged and allows partially digested food and toxins into the bloodstream) will have problems with a serotonin deficiency, which can cause irritability, anxiousness and depression.  Toxins breaching the central nervous system affect all neurotransmitters, creating an overactive or underactive brain, which can lead to ADHD and other neurological disorders.  There are definite similarities and links between autism and ADHD; sometimes, it is hard to tell the difference.  You can see why maintaining gut integrity is especially important to unraveling the problems of autism.

The integrative medicine approach to evaluating, diagnosing, and treating autism is conducive to achieving balance in the body.  Functional-integrative practitioners like us utilize advanced testing that measures a child’s deficiencies and level of toxicity.  Steps can then be taken to achieve balance.  Balance consists of getting rid of what they don’t need through detoxification and giving them what they do need through appropriate diet, supplementation, and support, i.e., communication, behavioral, and social therapies.

It’s important to try simple, non-invasive testing and treatments first, so that this encourages the child (and parents) with positive results early on.  Prioritization also helps with budgetary concerns.  The organization, Autism Speaks, estimates that it costs $60,000 per year to care for someone with autism; they note the majority of the costs are special education and lost parental income.  I believe it is closer to six figures.  In our integrative practice, functional testing has provided more and better data over the years to measure toxic loads and nutritional deficiencies.  These tests shine a light on the root causes of autism symptoms and addressing them early can make a big difference.  For example, a simple stool analysis is not a painful test and it shows the state of the gut flora and the levels of toxicity.  It’s a good place to start balancing because it affects many body systems.  If the nutritional, supplemental, and detox intervention corrects symptoms of anxiety or sleeplessness, it can lift a huge burden from a child and his family.

The Importance of Supporting Parents with Autistic Children

Parents and families of autistic children also benefit greatly from the integrative medicine approach.  Parents of autistic kids learn a lot about physiology; after all, they are the doctors in their children’s everyday lives.  Parents need encouragement, fortitude, and support as they gain the nutritional, medical, and parenting skills they need to bring their sons and daughters into the fullest possible measure of healing.  I often recommend behavior management parent training and family therapy to provide this support.

The integrative model also allows time for the necessary interaction between parents and doctors to address changes.  Integrative practitioners build more time into their appointments with patients; the nature of this kind of practice demands it.  My patients know they can contact my office 24/7 for help.  Kids move up and down on the autism spectrum as time goes on.  A child’s response to a specific therapy may change.  Kids tire of taking supplements, so compliance with a new treatment may be challenging.  Children can be exposed to different toxins.  Parents must feel free to keep in touch with us so that we can help them implement their treatment program.  We’ve learned a lot over the years (especially from other parents) about different solutions to common problems.

A quote attributed to Hippocrates, the father of medicine, sums up the integrative medicine approach: “Cure sometimes, heal often, comfort always.”  Wise words for both practitioners and parents as they attempt the complex task of restoring balance and healing to an ASD child.

Multi-Disciplinary Approach to Autism

A multi-disciplinary approach helps break down autism symptoms, one at a time, and can give options when one therapy ceases to work or a child moves up and down on the spectrum.  Here are disciplines I often recommend to families with autistic children and the reasons why they can be valuable.

Aquatic Therapy:  Helps manage stress, coordinate motor systems, and promote sensory integration.

Aromatherapy:  Essential oils have mood-altering properties.  The scents can relieve stress and improve cognitive function.  EOs uniquely address underlying emotional needs of children who cannot express themselves well.

Biofeedback or Neurofeedback Therapy: Addresses symptoms of anxiety, stress, and ADHD, especially the inattentive and hyperactive/impulsive type.  No known side effects.

Chiropractic:  Correcting misalignments in the spine helps restore balance and function to the digestive system, immune system and central nervous system.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT):  Helps children overcome fears, anxiety, and depression.  Also helps regulate emotions and improve impulse control, which reduces challenging behavior.

Drama Therapy:  Facilitates social connection.  Helps children take on and practice new roles as stories are created through actions and rehearsing new behaviors.

Homeopathy:  Natural, non-invasive therapies that support detoxification and physical, mental, and emotional symptoms.

Integrated Play Groups:   Promote socialization, communication, play, and imagination while building relationships with typical peers and siblings in natural settings.

Occupational Therapy:  Increases an individual’s functional independence.

Oriental Medicine:  Ancient system of healing that uses personalized acupressure/acupuncture, food therapy and herbal medicine programs to reduce or eliminate the physical, mental, and emotional symptoms of a child.

Sensory Integration:  Addresses difficulties with processing information through the senses.

Service Dogs:  Impressive results with nonverbal children, sensory and anxiety issues, stimming behavior, and pica (eating non-food items).


Joseph Cannizzaro, MD has been practicing pediatrics in Central Florida for over 40 years. As a classically-trained primary care physician who practices functional medicine, Dr. Cannizzaro believes that integrative medicine can bring conventional and complementary healing modalities together, creating a highly personalized and high-touch healing environment. Call Cannizzaro Integrative Pediatric Center at 321-280-5867 for a meet & greet with Dr. Cannizzaro and to learn more about the membership model available to his patients.

book about pediatric integrative medicine
Order Dr. C’s book, Answers for the 4-A Epidemic: Healing for Kids with Autism, ADHD, Asthma & Allergies on Amazon.  (Can also be purchased in the office.)


Heart Stethoscope Image Copyright: andreykuzmin / 123RF Stock Photo

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