Alternative Answers: Autism and Acupuncture

acupuncture2by Linda Ruggiero, PhD

While the search for better treatments for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) persists, people are beginning to search for alternative answers through alternative medicine. Both anecdotal and scientific evidence suggest that acupuncture may be beneficial for children with ASDs, and the therapeutic use of acupuncture is under current investigation.

ASDs are developmental disorders of brain pathways which affect the behaviors of children and lead them to display poor social interactions, have disrupted speech and language and engage in repetitive behaviors. Because ASDs involve many parts of the brain, its causes and treatments are complex.  A number of approaches are used, often in combination, to treat ADSs in a way that is tailored to the individual needs of the child. Most involve behavioral therapies that target speech and language in special education programs. Some medications, such as psychoactive drugs and antidepressants, may be used to treat ASDs, however these medications may have negative side effects. Alternative medicines, such as acupuncture, have been implicated in the treatment of ADSs, though extensive scientific research is needed to support its use.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), acupuncture is the inserting of very fine needles into specific points on the body for therapeutic purposes. These acupuncture points are aligned along meridians, or channels, through which energy flows.  TCM believes that illnesses are caused by an imbalance of energy throughout the body, and that autistic individuals have a strong imbalance of energy that needs to be restored. It is believed that stimulating acupuncture points serves to restore this balance, and is therefore useful in the treatment of ASDs.

A number of studies have been done to assess the effectiveness of acupuncture in treating children with ASDs.  In one U.S. study, 22 children with autism showed differences in blood flow between the two brain hemispheres in areas of the brain implicated in ASDs. These children were given acupuncture every other day for 4 months, and at the end of the trial their brain activity was examined. Interestingly, 20 of the 22 children showed no differences in blood flow between the brain hemispheres after treatment, suggesting that acupuncture affected their brain activity.  In a similar study, changes in brain activity were examined by electroencephalography (EEG) in 32 children with ASDs who were assigned into treatment groups, involving 30 sessions of acupuncture for 6 weeks, and control groups. It was shown that children with acupuncture showed language and social improvements compared to controls. In another study, 202 children with autism were divided into 2 groups, one receiving acupuncture and a control group receiving behavioral therapies in cognition, speech, and sensory integration. The children received treatment once a day, 6 times a week for 4 months. Children with severe autism receiving acupuncture showed greater improvements than those with behavioral therapy alone.

Together these data suggest that acupuncture can affect brain activity, and when combined with other therapies, it has beneficial effects in children with ASDs.

One immediate drawback to the use of acupuncture among children is that it usually requires the individual to remain still for extended amount of time. However, pediatric acupuncture does not require a child to stay still as with adults, rather it involves a fast administration of a very thin needle at the site of an acupuncture point that is quickly removed. In addition, scalp acupuncture, also known as head acupuncture, in which needles are placed in specific areas of the head, is useful in children because a child can sit up, play and talk with needles placed in his or her  head.  Studies have been done to test the effectiveness of scalp acupuncture in treating children with ASDs. In one 9 month study, scalp acupuncture was used in combination with language therapy in children with autism. Twenty children with autism aged 4 to 7 years old received language therapy twice a week, and half of these children also had scalp acupuncture twice a week. Language was assessed in these children prior to and after the treatments, and both groups of children showed improvements in language skills. These results were significantly higher in the children who also received acupuncture, suggesting that scalp acupuncture, in addition to traditional language therapy, can be beneficial among children with ASDs.

While acupuncture is beneficial for some children with ASDs, it appears to be most useful when combined with other therapeutic approaches. The use of acupuncture in the United States in the treatment of many disorders is still under investigation. However, the studies done so far appear to have promising results, and it will be exciting to see how alternative medicine impacts the treatment of children with ASDs.


Allam, H., El Dine, N.G., Helmy, G. J Altern Complement Med. 2008 Mar;14(2):109-14.Scalp acupuncture effect on language development in children with autism: a pilot study.

Chan, A.S., Cheung, M.C., Sze, S.L., Leung, W.W. (2009). Seven-star needle stimulation improves language and social interaction of children with autistic spectrum disorders. Am J Chin Med. 37: 495-504.

Russell, M. Acupuncture and Autism.

Yuan, Q., Wu, Z.F., Wang, R.C. Deng, J.J., Zhou, H.L., Lang, J.Y. (2009). Observation on the therapeutic effect of acupuncture treatment of autism children. Zhen Ci Yan Jiu. 34: 183-187.

Zhang, L. (2008). Autism Treatment by Scalp Acupuncture.

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