Complementary and Alternative Medicine and Autism

Child with autism looking at computer screenWoman in a yoga positionWoman having chiropracticBottle of pillsSymbol for reiki


Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is a group of diverse medical and healthcare systems, practices, and products that are not generally considered part of conventional, Western medicine as practiced by medical doctors and allied health professionals.

‘Complementary medicine’ refers to the use of CAM together with conventional medicine. ‘Alternative medicine’ refers to the use of CAM in place of conventional medicine.

CAM practices are sometimes divided into two main subcategories: natural products and mind-body medicine. However there are various other sub-categories including whole medical systems, manipulative and body-based practices, movement therapies, energy medicine and so on. In practice, many forms of CAM fall into more than one sub-category. For example, qigong massage can be categorised as mind-body medicine, as a manipulative or body-based practice, or as energy medicine.

CAM practices (like standard healthcare practices) are used to treat a wide range of conditions (such as cancer, depression and stroke). Some CAM practices are also being used to treat some of the problems faced by autistic people, including the core features of autism (such as difficulties with social interaction) and some of the associated problems (such as anxiety).

The hypotheses behind different CAM practices vary from one practice to another, but practices within the sub-categories often share the same hypothesis. For example, practices based on energy medicine are all based on the idea of manipulating energy fields of one kind or another.


The scientific evidence for the use of CAM practices to help autistic people varies between different CAM practices. In most cases, either no evidence exists at all or the evidence has no significance for making decisions about treatment; it just indicates the need for more research. 


According to National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: "As with any medical product or treatment, there can be risks with complementary therapies. These risks depend on the specific therapy. Each therapy needs to be considered on its own."

Whole Medical Systems

Whole medical systems are complete systems of theory and practice that have evolved over time in different cultures and are separate from conventional or Western medicine. 

Specific systems include: Ayurvedic Medicine, Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine

More information

Please see Whole Medical Systems

Natural Products

Natural products include a variety of herbal medicines (also known as botanicals), vitamins, minerals, and other ‘natural products’ such as essential fatty acids.

Many of these natural products are sold over the counter as dietary or nutritional supplements.

More information

Please see Natural Products

Mind-Body Medicine

Mind and body practices focus on the interactions between the brain, mind, body, and behaviour.

Mind-body practices include:

  • meditation-based activities such as deep-breathing exercises, guided imagery, hypnotherapy and progressive relaxation 
  • TCM/martial arts based activities such as acupuncture, qi gong, tai chi and yoga
  • other practices including the Feldenkrais method, the Alexander technique, pilates, Rolfing Structural Integration, and Trager psychophysical integration.

More information

Please see Mind-Body Medicine

Manipulative and Body-Based Practices

Manipulative and body-based practices focus primarily on the structures and systems of the body, including the bones and joints, soft tissues, and circulatory and lymphatic systems. 

Manipulative and body-based practices include chiropractic, cranial osteopathy and massage.

More information

Please see Manipulation and Body-Based Interventions

Energy Medicine

Energy medicine involves the manipulation of various energy fields, which may or may not be measurable by scientists.

Veritable energy therapies include practices based on objectively measurable forms of energy such as electromagnetic fields, for example, neurofeedback training, transcranial direct-current stimulation and transcranial magnetic stimulation.

Putative energy therapies describe practices based on yet-to-be measured energy fields (also called biofields).

More information

Please see Energy Medicine 

Other CAM Interventions

There are some CAM interventions which do not readily fit into any of the categories above including animal-based therapies such as assistance dogs, dolphin therapy, hippotherapy and pet therapy.

Please see separate section on Other Interventions for details of these interventions.

More Information

Please see Publications on Complementary and Alternative Medicine and Autism

Related Pages


Related Glossaries

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15 Feb 2019