Ayurvedic Approach to Autism: Concepts, Observations & Experiences

Dr. Prasad. M, MD (Ay.)*

Introduction

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a set of neuro-developmental disorders characterized by impaired social behavior, language and communication skills. ASD is often accompanied by other deficits in cognition or neural development, and usually manifests within the first three years of life. There is a wide symptomatic range in autism, varying from very mild to severe. Other features seen commonly in these kids include learning disabilities, difficulty in vocalizing their ideas and inability of speech, indifference towards play or interaction with peers, repetitive behavior, need for constant sensory stimulation, social aloofness, and lack of focus and attention. Some children hurt themselves, and exhibit obsessive behavior. They are usually not receptive to communication. Many of them have reduced muscle tone. These children have a compromised digestive system and show gut-related symptoms like stomach aches, gastritis, flatulence, and repeated bouts of diarrhea/constipation. They may crave for sugary substances. Also, they show more susceptibility towards frequent infections, eczema, chronic nasal symptoms, asthma, and recurrent respiratory infections.

Background

It is seen all around the word that the incidence rate of ASD is on a steady increase. The spectrum is so broad, diverse and ambiguous; and this makes the diagnosis confused and often late. It is an accepted fact everywhere that earlier the diagnosis better will be the outcome. But different levels of understanding of the disease, educational and economical background of parents and many other similar reasons hinder with the diagnosis many a times. It is a fact that there is no bio-medical cure for Autism. Still, different methods of interventions are tried and practiced in different countries on the basis of beliefs, experiences, and anecdotes.
Ayurveda is a traditional system of medicine in India which has a documented history of nearly 5000 years. It enjoys a high degree of social patronage all over the country, especially in its southern State of Kerala. Globally, it is one among the most sought after traditional system of medicine. People depend upon ayurvedic system of medicine for all sorts of diseases as a safe and effective alternative to the conventional medicine. Obviously, parents of autistic kids seek ayurvedic ‘cure’ for autism widely, especially when they understand that the western biomedicine has no remedy for this upsetting condition. We have hundreds of parents in our records who opted for our way of autism management, either partially or completely. Over a period of 13 years, we have developed a pure ayurvedic methodology for explaining the condition and strategizing a management program and customizing its application in kids with ASD. In this note I am trying to share the theoretical and practical aspects of our protocol.
With increasing numbers of autistic children coming to our clinic, and no standard mode of treatment available, we started ourselves working on it from an Ayurvedic perspective and then developing an effective protocol for management/treatment. This protocol has undergone many revisions and refinements based on our 13 years of experience with the kids and a close observation of their responses to the treatment.

Ayurvedic Approach to Autism

From the clinical presentations, it is clear that the gut of the kids with ASD is erratic and troublesome always. This association is really significant to such an extent that most of the parents feel that their kids are calm and comfortable as long as the gut is stable and smooth. According to ayurvedic biology, a factor called AGNI, the eternal fire of life, seated in and operating from the gut governs its functional status. Agni, apart from the basic functions of digestion and assimilation of food, plays critical role of keeping toxins away. This is achieved by two means. Firstly, it denies entry of toxins from outside, and secondly, it nulls the toxins generated within the system. Using ayurvedic tools and methodology, we studied the AGNI of autistic children and came out with the observation that it is either under-perform or mis-perform. So we postulated that there will be toxic accumulations in the body of these kids and this should be the prime focus when we plan a strategy to manage Autism.
The accumulation of toxins can be dangerous in many ways. We shall see some examples. There are channels and pathways of various types and functions in the body which perform a variety of functions like carrying nutrients, wastes, metabolites, impulses, and many other gross and subtle forms of matter and energy. These channels and pathways are referred to as SROTAS (san: conduit, channel) in ayurvedic literature. Toxins can cause clogging of these channels and derange their functions. This will result in the malfunctioning of many physiological mechanisms. Similarly, the presence of toxins challenges the sustenance of the basic tissues (known as DHATHUs, in ayurveda). This pollutes the internal environment further. In such a polluted environment, the sensory and motor mechanisms fail to maintain their correct functional status. This has major repercussions in the interactions of the individual with the environment. This is more pronounced when the channels related to the mind/mental faculties are involved in the toxic chain.
As per ayurvedic biology, mind (MANAS) is the medium that connects the sensory and the motor systems with the plane of consciousness (BUDHI/ATMA). So a disruption in the channels/pathways which carry the mind can cause distortion of sensory perception and motor responses. This status of clogged channels, polluted tissues and disrupted mind is the most crucial change that we observed in these kids. Of course, the triggering factors which lead to such a compromised status may be different in different kids.

Agni

Agni is that eternal fire of life, seated in and operating from the gut which governs its functional status

OJAS

Ojas is the status of internal environment of an individual created by perfect AGNI, healthy body tissues (DHATHUs), functional channels /pathways (SROTAS) and a well-connected mind (MANAS)
Another important consideration here is a term called OJAS. Ojas is the status of internal environment of an individual created by perfect AGNI, healthy body tissues (DHATHUs), functional channels and pathways (SROTAS) and a well-connected mind. It is an essential qualification for any individual to fight adverse situations like toxic invasions and/or infections; to establish a healthy interaction with the surroundings; and to ascertain an acceptable pattern of personal and social behavior. With ayurvedic tools, the status of Ojas in an individual can be measured (with a questionnaire model). Using this method, we observed that the status of Ojas in autistic kids is compromised or hypo-functional. This could be the reason for the morbid responses of these kids like phobias, cravings, cognitive stand-stills, poor immunity, recurrent infections, and so on. With this we proposed the existence of an AGNI_OJAS axis that can explain the complexities of the weird mind-body relations in autistic kids. So, we concluded that an approach which can enhance and stabilize the OJAS could improve the functional status of the autistic kids significantly. So there were four aspects to concentrate on:
  1. perfect AGNI
  2. healthy body tissues (DHATHUs)
  3. functional channels and pathways (SROTAS)
  4. well-connected mind

The link between AGNI, channels, tissues, mindand Ojas is represented schematically in the Figure. 1


Figure 1: the theoretical basis of autism management

Corrective approach

As the entire mechanism of synthesis and maintenance of Ojas starts from the level of Agni, correction of AGNI should be the topmost priority in a corrective approach. Proper operation of OJAS can enhance the control of mind over body, help to establish and accomplish higher mental functions more effectively, modulate the immune responses, and characterize the individual in his/her social and environmental circumstances.

Our Protocol

We developed a three-phased protocol to achieve the proposed goals. 

  • Phase 1: Correct the AGNI
  • Phase 2: Cleanse the tissues and channels and fine-tune the body-mind relationship
  • Phase 3: augment the Ojas

Methodology

Initial diagnosis Initial diagnosis is made by detailed assessment of the child’s behavior and collecting detailed information by parent interview. A Special assessment score sheet with a 10-point scoring pattern is used to understand the major problem areas and their gravity. Reports from other experts working with autistic children, like clinical psychologists and special educators are also utilized. Based on the diagnosis, evaluation of the status of factors like Agni, the tissues, Channels, and mind is inferred, and a customized picture of the child is portrayed.
The 3-phased intervention is as below:-
Phase 1 – Correct the AGNI: this is based on the initial assessment. Here, no stay in the hospital is required. In this phase, special dietary modifications are suggested along with simple internal medication. Food is a very important tool. The medicines given at this stage is to enhance and regulate the AGNI. The child is put under this phase for a maximum period of 3 months.
Phase 2 – in this phase the child is admitted in the hospital with the parent. Customized internal medications and classical ayurvedic therapies are the major interventions here. Dhara, Abhyanga, Udwartanam, Sirovasti, Siropichu Sirolepanam and Pinda Sweda are examples of different ayurvedic therapies employed in this phase. They are performed selectively based on the child’s constitutional status and type of presentations. This phase may last for 2-3 weeks.
Phase 3 – augment the Ojas: It is again a home-based phase. Here, appropriate medication is given to improve the functions of Ojas. Obviously, the initial diet-modification will be continued throughout.
Based on the merit of individual cases, the second and third phases will be repeated between a span of 8 to 12 months. Our three-phase treatment protocol is represented in Figure 2.

Figure 2: the three stages of treatment

Assessments

We make general assessment of the kid on each visit using the same Special assessment score sheet with a 10-point scoring pattern.   All information is recorded properly.

Results

Our observations show that several positive changes occur in the child the changes that we observed after each phase is as follows.

Phase 1:

  1. Significant change in the gut status.
  2. Symptoms like flatulence, repeated bouts of constipation and diarrhea and fussy eating habits show significant reduction.
  3. Proportionately, the child’s behavior also takes a turn for the better.
  4. Children calm down significantly.
  5. The recurrent infections and co-morbidities come under control.

Phase 2:

  1. better sleep patterns
  2. improved muscle tone and motor coordination
  3. reduced hyperactivity and better attention-span
  4. better eye contact
  5. Increased receptivity to commands or suggestions.

Phase 3:

  1. remarkable improvements in behavior (as reported by the parents)
  2. tendency for more vocalization and expressive language
  3. better interaction with other children
  4. Improved academic performance as evident from school reports.

Conclusion
Classical Ayurvedic treatment methods, when suitably tailored and diligently performed, show remarkable promise in the management of autism and related disorders. These observations have made us more convinced about the importance of diet.  Along with medical treatment, we encourage and advise the use of supporting techniques like behavioral therapy and special education. Although more study is required to augment our findings, the experiences in the last 13 years suggest that this protocol can be emulated by other practitioners to help the growing numbers of autistic children. Of course, practitioners must adapt this according to their individual logic and circumstances. 

 Author affiliations
*Principal, Ashtamgam Ayurveda Vidyapeedham, Vavanoor, Palakkad District, Kerala, India 
Email: sunethriayurveda@gmail.com, drprasad@ashtamgam.org


published in academia.edu
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