Autism + TCM

Many parents who first hear the words “Your child has autism” are shocked and dismayed. While we have all heard about autism, many of us have only vague ideas of what the diagnosis means and what can be done to help children and adults lead as normal a life as possible. The truth is that autism, being a spectrum disorder, affects different people in different ways and no two autistic children are exactly alike. There are also many different theories about what causes autism and what can be done to treat it.This makes things very confusing for parents who are struggling to come to terms with what is best for their child. How autistic individuals are affected by the disorder varies widely. People with severe cases display self-injurious, aggressive, and unusual behaviours.

The mildest forms may appear, at least to the layperson, to be a personality disorder, possibly associated with a learning disability. Males are three times more likely to have the disorder than females. Recent studies suggest that some people have a genetic predisposition to autism. Scientists estimate that families with one autistic child have a 5-percent (one in twenty) chance of having a second autistic child. An autistic adult or child might at first appear to be mentally retarded or hard of hearing. But autism caregivers stress that it is important to distinguish autism from other conditions.

Physically, autistic individuals do not appear different from others but exhibit marked differences in behaviour from a very early age. Autism is usually diagnosed in early childhood (before the age of three) and is characterized by a marked unresponsiveness to other people and to the surrounding environment. While most babies love to be held and cuddled, autistic infants appear indifferent to love and affection, or may be overly agitated, crying most of the time they are awake.

Autistic children cannot form attachments to others in the way most children do and seem to withdraw into themselves. Many exhibit various unpredictable and unusual behaviours that can range from constant rocking, feet-pounding, or sitting for long periods of time in total silence. Some experience bursts of hyperactivity that include biting and pounding on their bodies. Traditional Chinese Medicine view Autism as an imbalance of the Heart, Spleen and Kidney with Phlegm accumulation.

Phlegm is not only a pathological factor for the Autistic child but also etiological. In TCM, Autistic individuals suffer from Heart Blood imbalances that inhibit connecting on an emotional level with other persons, including their immediate family. These children often present with digestive anomalies characterized as Spleen Qi Deficiency. As Autism is most often diagnosed before the age of three, TCM recognizes this disorder as having a genetics factors, i.e., Kidney Essence Deficiency.


Contributing factors to the development of Autism in TCM include genetics, digestive weakness, lifestyle, and emotions etc.


The diagnosis of Autism at young ages signifies a genetics connection. The diagnosis of Autism at birth is not possible because there are many cofactors, which must arise for a child to develop Autism. Most children will also be exposed to these same co-factors, yet develop normally. This genetic predisposition must be addressed in order to reverse Autism.

Digestive Weakness

Parents often say that their children seemed normal to about one to one and a half years of age at which time they began regressing. This is also the time that children begin to consume a much wider variety of foods. If Spleen Qi is deficient, a person will tend to digest foods poorly and will have a propensity to develop Phlegm. Many of the behaviours associated with Autism are due to Phlegm accumulation. One of the primary pathways for Phlegm development is Deficiency of Spleen Qi.

Lifestyle Factors

A discussion of Autism must address the needs of infants at birth. Children are not only born with weak Spleen and Lung Qi, but also with vulnerability of spirit. Traditionally, babies remained at home with the mother and family in quiet environments. Our culture’s propensity to take young infants everywhere, including malls and sports arenas is detrimental to their Vitality. Babies, particularly those who have a propensity to startle easily, should be kept in quiet, peaceful, soothing environments. It is important that an infant not be over-stimulated, as this depletes Heart Qi and Blood.


As Autistic children age, they may exhibit a great deal of frustration due to their inability to communicate. This frustration generates heat and this heat may contribute to more aggressive behaviours. This heat coupled with puberty and its accompanying rise in Yang Qi may lead to seizures. Many Autistic children experience anxiety due to Heart Qi and Blood Deficiency. Spleen Qi Deficiency can lead to obsessive ness and obsessive behaviours weaken Spleen Qi further.


Phlegm is the primary pathological factor related to the development of Autism. Spleen Qi Deficiency is the primary pathway for development of Phlegm. Autism has components of Heart, Spleen and Kidney organ/energetic deficiencies. The Chong Mai Meridian is important in any discussion of Autism pathology due to the connection to the Heart, Kidney and Spleen.

Acupuncture Treatment for Autism

Autism is another of those conditions that has baffled Western Medicine. When you read about this condition you learn much about the symptoms. It affects the ability of people to communicate successfully. It is called a development problem. It is thought that there might be genetic considerations.

TCM will see the cause as some kind lack of balance in the internal harmony of the body. It has it roots in some kind of problem with the natural flow of vital energy through the body. This is the root cause of any condition that causes the human being to deviate from normal health. Therefore, autism and acupuncture are a natural match.

Acupuncture can help restore the balance that will ultimately result in an improvement of the symptoms. Recently, a new form of holistic acupuncture has been developed that has shown good results in the treatment of autism symptoms. A holistic acupuncture form is one where a certain part of the body is thought to contain the entire network of the whole body. In other words, these holistic areas can be miniature maps of the body’s acupuncture points. The ear, hand, and scalp have all been used in this manner.

The new method is tongue acupuncture. The developers of tongue acupuncture admit that the treatment is designed to alleviate symptoms rather than seek a cure. It is effective in calming the child which is a major problem with many autistic patients.

Traditional acupuncture treatments for autism have shown some good results although they do not often suggest complete cures are possible. In some cases, however, it is reported that the patients have improved to such a degree that a fairly normal life is possible. Unfortunately, there is very little in the way of clinical studies that support the claims of acupuncturists on the success of their treatments. There is a need to do more studies and to structure them properly so as to be able to properly evaluate the results.


There are a great many acupuncture points that can be used in treating Autism. In the beginning, it is suggested that only one or two points are used until the child is acclimated to the clinic and the practitioner. After a child is comfortable, eight to ten points can be used in a treatment. Remember that this is a long-term process. It will not usually resolve in a short time. An intensive sixth month to two-year commitment is necessary based on the child’s condition. We have had some children for shorter periods of time, but in order to address deep constitutional changes I suggest a two-year commitment.


The development of Autism is a multi-faceted pathway. There is no direct cause and effect for Autism Spectrum Disorders though there are a set of cofactors that must be present. The external and internal factors can be a source of difficulty, but a major focus in Autism is on the miscellaneous factors. Genetic factors can set the stage but there must be other co-factors in order for Autism to develop. Nutritional and lifestyle factors must be addressed in the treatment plan of the autistic child. The manifestations of Phlegm and the root cause of Phlegm must be elucidated. It is due to the very different pathways by which Autism develops that makes it difficult to assign causality.

TCM treats the constitution and specific needs of the individual, not the disease. With a behaviourally-defined syndrome, such as Autism, such treatment is especially appropriate because the practitioner is able to accurately diagnosis and treats a patient who may be manifesting any number of diverse and seemingly unrelated symptoms.

The foundation for effective treatment in TCM would use a multi-tiered approach that includes synergistic TCM modalities, such as herbal medicine, acupuncture, Tui Na, Qigong, nutrition, and manipulative therapy. This multi-tiered approach should include the intervention with early education treatment that Western medicine recommends.

Article written by Choo Led Sin, TCM Physician

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