Myths abound in the autism world — and, thanks to the internet, those myths travel.
Whether it’s a company touting concentrated oxygen chambers as a cure or a doctor erroneously claiming the condition is caused by vaccines, the many misconceptions about autism cater to parents who are desperate for answers. At best, they muddy the truth about the developmental disorder that affects one in 68 kids nationwide. At worst, they put those kids in danger.
That’s what happened most recently in Indiana, when a mom allegedly gave her daughter drops of a “bleach-like” concoction that she read online was a “cure” for autism. According to local Fox news, the unnamed mother told her husband she got the idea from “a Facebook group” that referred to the liquid as the “miracle mineral solution” or MMS.
To make the mixture, the mother combined hydrochloric acid and a chlorine-based water purifying solution, which she then dropped in her daughter’s drinks. After the girl’s father reported the incident to police, the Department of Child Services took the child out of the home and — as of Wednesday — was investigating the incident.
This “miracle mineral solution” is a myth that has existed for some time; it pops up regularly in online antivaccination discussions. For instance, MMS interpreted as “master mineral solution” is favored by a woman named Kerri Rivera, a controversial Chicago native who now runs a nonprofit clinic in Latin America that purports to “cure” autism. In 2012 at a yearly conference called Autism One, Rivera announced MMS as the “missing piece to the autism puzzle,” one that she claims allowed “38 children to recover in 20 months.” Her website now claims that MMS has cured 235 children, as of October 2016.
On her website, Rivera (who didn’t respond to Yahoo Lifestyle’s request for an interview) says her clinic is “biomed based” — meaning biomedical interventions. That term is far-reaching and can mean anything from a dangerous concoction like MMS to a gluten free diet. The term does not imply any scientifically backed data. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does mention biomedical interventions as a means of coping with autism, but the only biomedical interventions it mentions are dietary ones.
“Some dietary treatments have been developed by reliable therapists. But many of these treatments do not have the scientific support needed for widespread recommendation,” the CDC says on its autism treatment page. “An unproven treatment might help one child, but may not help another.”
The treatment of autism has long been a point of contention in the science world. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) remains the gold standard, specifically Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI). According to the Comprehensive Guide to Autism, EIBI is “an evidence-based intervention using principles and procedures from Applied Behavior Analysis to teach adaptive behaviors to young children with autism spectrum disorders.” Focused on children under five, it is widely regarded as one of the most successful evidence-based treatments.
The miracle mineral solution is a decidedly different treatment plan — one that’s both misleading and reckless. Rivera does not outline the risks associated with the treatment and instead refers to it directly as a miracle. But the risks are significant. According to the World Health Organization, chlorine dioxide is both a respiratory and eye irritant and (per the Food and Drug Administration) can cause nausea, diarrhea, and dehydration when ingested.
In a free handout on her website, she describes MMS as a “not toxic nor dangerous” substance that is “NOT clorox bleach.” As to how it theoretically works? “Autism is made up of pathogens (e.g. virus, bacteria, parasites, candida, heavy metals),” Rivera writes on the handout. “MMS kills pathogens and neutralizes heavy metals, as well as reduces inflammation.”
After offering “dosing” options (which her site says can be given in drops or through an enema), the handout shows “testimonials” of parents who have allegedly used the mixture to successfully heal their child’s autism. “If it were not for you Kerri, my mom would still be worrying about my diagnosis,” reads text next to a picture of a smiling blonde-haired boy. “You are my guardian angel! Autism is curable!”
For doctors and experts in the medical world, pushing back against these false claims is an uphill battle. Dr. David G. Amaral is a distinguished professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of California-Davis, as well as the Beneto Foundation Chair and Research Director of the MIND Institute. He says the kind of information that’s being spread about MMS is dangerous.
“These stories are indeed horrific. They stem, in part, from the desperation that some parents feel to find a viable treatment for their children,” Amaral tells Yahoo Lifestyle while referring to the Indiana mother who gave her daughter the MMS mixture. “There is no basis in fact that this ‘treatment’ has any beneficial effect on children with autism.”
Dr. Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele is a professor in the department of psychiatry at Columbia University and director of the division of child & adolescent psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian/Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital. He echoes Amaral’s thoughts. “There is no logical reason to expect that drinking bleach and water would be helpful in any way,” says Veenstra-VanderWeele.
As someone with years of experience treating kids with autism, he is accustomed to hearing stories about parents trying something they found on the internet. “When there isn’t anything doing what you hope it would for your child, you reach out to people who offer solutions that are essentially fantasy, but that seem like promising improvements,” Veenstra-VanderWeele tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It’s easy to understand, but it’s a shame that people promulgate this stuff on the internet.”
Echoing the advice of major medical institutions, Veenstra-VanderWeele says to stick with scientifically backed options when working with an autism diagnosis. “Treating something using a medical approach is using data,” he says. “There are treatments for autism that have data behind them. There are also treatments that have some logic behind them based upon what we know about treating other disorders. And that’s the ideal — pick something that actually works.”
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