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MONDAY, JUNE 22, 1998
 

Doctor finds ways to attack son's autism
Psychiatrist uses non-traditional
methods to fight disorder

By NEIL D. ROSENBERG
of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel staff

Sometimes it takes a unique approach to tame a non-traditional disorder.

Over the past seven years, child psychiatrist Bruce Semon, 43, has cobbled together a regimen of drastic diet therapy, homeopathy and prescription drugs intended for other uses, to help bring his autistic son, Avraham (Avi), out of his withdrawn state.

 It appears to have helped somewhat.
Consider that at age 4 1/2, Avi lost the speech capabilities he had  developed earlier. His fine motor skills disappeared to the point he could not hold a crayon. He would scream for hours on end, staying awake each night for three to five hours, in clear discomfort.
Now, as Avi approaches his 12th birthday, he can swim in deep water, ride a bicycle without training wheels, throw a ball two-handed, sleep through the night, and - using a specialized, assisted keyboard communication -    he attends regular school.
And he is beginning to talk again.

But the road from there to here has not been an easy one. It was filled with trial and error. Parents' love and devotion, and a father trained in traditional nutrition sciences and psychiatry, who was able to keep an open mind, apparently made a difference.
Autism is a difficult disorder, with bizarre traits. Classified as a developmental disability, it  is a neurological disorder that interferes with normal development of the brain in areas of reasoning, social interaction and communication.
       With  a  typical onset in the first three years of life, autism  can  cause children to become so withdrawn from the real world that they will sit and rock for hours on end in one position. They may develop repeated  body movements such as hand flapping, they may be highly resistant to change, and in the most dramatic cases, they may become overly aggressive to others - and to themselves.  They may repeatedly bang their heads against a wait, for example.
The Autism Society of America estimates about 400,000 people nationwide have autism to some degree.
That Semon eventually found a wide variety of techniques to help his son, who received no treatment until 1991, is not unusual. According to the Autism Society, "No one approach is effective in alleviating the symptoms of autism in all cases." Among the treatments that help are behavior modification, speech and language therapy, vision therapy, music therapy, auditory training, medications and dietary interventions.
It was the latter that began Avi's path out of his darkness.

Midnight Revelation

One night in 1991,while his mother, Lori, now 41, was up with him in the middle of
the night, Avi kept repeating the words “the lights, the lights." It immediately struck her that Avi was perhaps suffering a migraine headache. Migraine sufferers often are sensitive to light. There was a family history of migraines, and Bruce Semon remembered his father avoided certain foods to prevent the headaches.
So the couple began by removing chocolate, peanut butter, orange juice and aged cheeses from Avi's diet, and he became a little better. “There was less screaming, and
he appeared more comfortable," his father said.
That spring, during Passover, when all yeast-containing and leavened products were removed from the house and the family’s diet for eight days, Avi improved even more.
   But he still refused to engage in any social interaction. “We couldn't get him to do anything at all. He would just sit there," Semon said.
Semon, who earlier had graduated from medical school and recently obtained a Ph.D in nutrition, began to hone in on other dietary factors. Eventually, he concluded that fermented products and yeast-containing foods were affecting his son, and so he removed all such food products from his son's diet.
The Autism Society, in a position paper on diet, states: “Individuals with autism often exhibit low tolerances for and/or allergies to yeast, gluten products and others. Parents have found that upon elimination of these products,  some individuals displayed improved behaviors and longer attention spans.”  But the society also notes, "there are no rigorous scientific studies, however, supporting dietary modifications."
Avi's diet now consists primarily of beans, rice, fruits and vegetables.
As the dietary adjustments were made, he began to improve in small steps.
"He looked a whole lot better," Semon said. Most of the screaming was gone. He started to play again. He was sleeping better. He still couldn't talk, but he was much more comfortable.
     Not long after, Semon began prescribing nystatin, an anti-yeast drug, for his son. Later still, he added  naltrexone, a drug ordinarily used to treat alcohol dependency. It works by blocking the effects of opioids, very small amounts of which are found in milk and wheat products. Semon believes that at low doses, the drug clears opioids that have accumulated in the brain and which, when present, have the effect of slowing down brain function.

Slow Motions

Semon feels that autism, to a large degree (and this is over-simplifying the disorder) is a condition in which the brain activity  has been slowed down, almost as if it were working in slow motion. While he can’t say definitively why the drug might help
he believes it acts as a sort of stimulant to Avi's brain.
There have been setbacks.
When Avi was in third grade, he began eating plants and literally poisoned himself. He still has to be carefully supervised so he doesn't eat plants.
In his continuing search for remedies, especially to get Avi to communicate through speech again, Semon turned to homeopathy, a technique in which the very substances that may be causing a physical problem are diluted to an extremely weak strength and then given as a healing tonic.
Avi from time to time takes homeopathic remedies, including one that is diluted tincture of syphilis. Semon admits he "has no clue" why such remedies should work, if they work at all. "They have been totally rejected by medicine because they are so fanciful" he said. But because they are also benign, and on the chance it could help, he uses them.

Into all of this non-traditional mix there also is traditional treatment. Avi gets four to five hours of intensive applied behavior analysis therapy most days of the week.
The overall result is a more peaceful Avi who has ever so slowly developed more skills. He is learning to use a computer mouse. He is working hard to be able to completely dress himself but his  fine motor skills still are diminished. He cannot write, but he can hold a pencil. He can in-line skate and ice skate. He sits quietly, comfortably, while listening to music, one of his favorite pastimes. And though his articulation is poor, Avi can tell his parents, “ I want a hot bath."

    Semon recently wrote a chapter for a book, “Biological Treatments for Autism and PDD” (Pervasive Developmental Disorder) on his diet/drug therapy regiment and also recounts cases he has treated in his practice.
For some it is too difficult to follow, he says. For others, there usually is improvement. "I tell them their child will feel more comfortable."
He admits it is not a panacea.
But somewhere along the way, Avi also taught himself to read. “Somehow he figured it out," his father said. "He preserved his intellect.”
For all the difficulties an autistic child poses, there can be triumphs.


Autism Society of Wisconsin- 888 428 8476     www.asw4autism.org

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