Pittsburgh researchers plan to house autistic youths in ‘clean room’

From Volume 4 Number 12

PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania, USA: Doctors at the Children's Institute in Pittsburgh are planning to house young people with autism for weeks at a time in a pollutant-free “clean room,” in an attempt to detoxify their bodies.
    No cause for autism has been found, and debates rage as to whether the brain development disorder is purely genetic or caused in part by environmental factors, including air and food-borne chemicals.
    With roots in autism treatment theories that until now have lived mostly on the Internet, the paediatric “clean room” plan would be the first of its kind in a mainstream American hospital environment.
    The Children Institute’s Dr Scott Faber, a paediatrician with several hundred autistic patients and a waiting-list six months long, is one of the believers in toxic causes, and the institute is trying to back him with a multi-million-dollar test of the novel theory.
    Under the plans - developed with help from Duquesne University - autistic patients would live for more than six weeks in a 1,000-square-foot room kept mostly free of harmful chemicals and pollutants, using special air-filtering systems, ultra-violet lights and air locks on doorways.
    Furniture, paints, toys and floor coverings would be designed to be toxin-free, and food, clothing and water organic and clean. Doctors would seek to rid patients’ bodies of chemicals and boost their immune systems through natural means such as nutritional supplements and dietary changes.
    Basically, it would be pushing a “reset” button on the child’s body, with the hope of wiping autistic symptoms away.
    “What we would like to do is have kids live in this wonderful environment where they are exposed to almost none of the Industrial Revolution. And we wonder, if the chemicals come out and the heavy metals come out, will the children start improving?” Dr Faber said. “Will they start showing signs of clinical improvement, such as language improvement and socialisation improvement? Will they become less obsessive? Less fascinated?”
    Autism is one of a group of developmental disabilities disorders that cause substantial impairments in social interaction and communication and are characterised by unusual
behaviours and interests. Many people with these disorders also have unusual ways of learning, paying attention and reacting to sensation. Rates have greatly increased in recent years, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though some of the rise may be due to changes in reporting and diagnosing the disorder.
    It will require an estimated $500,000 to design fully and at least $1 million in yearly operating support its first three years.
    The Children’s Institute plan would be taking what is arguably a fringe movement into the mainstream. It would be the first autism treatment of this kind staged in an American hospital setting. It will be matched with scientific analysis, sensors and video cameras to study the real impacts of detoxification. The data and findings would be shared openly, he said.
    The room would house only one patient at a time and have educational and play spaces, and a table for dining. Medical staff, teachers and family would have regular access to the room through an air-locked entrance, and another air lock would separate the room from a kitchen and laundry area. There will be a small bedroom for the child and a couch for a family member to stay overnight.
    At the outset, patients would be only the sickest children, who have not responded to other treatments. They would stay for six to 12 weeks, allowing an estimated four to six children to be treated per year. (Twenty families have already expressed an interest.) After leaving, spaces at each patient’s home would be equipped with lower-level clean technology, such as ultra-violet lights and air filters, and children would continue with special diets.
    With so many doubts - and so few answers - about effective autism treatments among the growing community of families affected by the condition, the institute said openness was vital to the experimental method’s success.
    “We’re not saying this is the full cause” of autism and related illnesses, Faber declared. “Obviously, there are multiple causes, and many genetic causes are going to be found, many environmental causes and many genetic-environmental interactions. But we wonder - we speculate - that it’s possible that, if we have children living in a unique environment which has not (previously) been created scientifically we can make a difference.”
    Educational, physical, speech and behavioural therapies have long been the traditional treatments for autism, but a growing number of families and researchers have called for further biomedical treatments as well, suspecting there is a chemical side to the disorder.
    Parents “research anything they can get their hands on and there are so many things saying ‘Try this or try that’ that aren’t necessarily safe. It’s a frightening thing,” said Kim Aburachis, of Peters, Pennsylvania, who has twin 10-year-old boys, Nathan and Tyler, with severe cases of autism. Her boys have seen Faber for more than seven years and are likely to take part in the clean room treatment.
    “We’re so excited, so enthusiastic, just for the hope of this,” she said.

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