Autism Treatment Gaining Acceptance; A Ponte Vedra Beach Clinic Uses a Variety of Approaches Tailored to Each Child

Article excerpt

Byline: DEIRDRE CONNER

PONTE VEDRA BEACH - The clinic is easy to miss, just a squat, unassuming modular on Palm Valley Road.

Parents who have traveled thousands of miles to see these physicians often wonder: Could this really be it?

In the tiny waiting room, there's no sign of a receptionist, or even a little sliding-glass window. The walls are hand-painted with zoo animals, and the floor is packed with toys. It feels more like a house overcrowded for the holidays than a sterile, efficient doctor's office, which Julie Buckley and Jerry Kartzinel say is exactly the point.

The partners and pioneers in a biomedical treatment for autism are digging out from an avalanche of calls after one of their patients' parents, actress Jenny McCarthy, went public with a memoir of her family's life after her son's autism diagnosis. The two, especially Kartzinel, have been speakers for years on the topic and draw patients from around the world.

Clearly, though, there's more to this than star power. The approach appears to be gaining traction - or, perhaps, acceptance - with some traditional physicians and pediatricians, despite its controversial affiliation with those who believe vaccines cause autism.

Perhaps it's because they believe the science behind the treatment. More likely, though, it's because their patients' parents do.

Whatever the reason, Buckley thinks the mainstream research establishment, such as Tom Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, is listening. Buckley and Kartzinel were invited to the conference sponsored by CARD, the Center on Autism and Related Disabilities. And, she said, the American Academy of Pediatrics finally sent a representative to a Defeat Autism Now conference.

"It's a step in the right direction," Buckley said.

Defeat Autism Now, or DAN, is the term that describes the regimen used by doctors such as Buckley and Kartzinel and involves a range of treatments tailored to each child. They include a wheat-free, dairy-free diet, vitamin supplements and, for some, chelation (chemicals that remove metals from the body) and time in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber. They test for trace metals such as mercury and aluminum, do biochemical analyses of mineral levels in the blood, and test for allergies, among other things.

It takes time, and money, from the monthly expense of supplements to thousands of dollars for more involved treatments that rely on equipment and medicine. Insurance coverage is hard to come by.

"It depends on what the kids present with," Kartzinel said. "We take histories, and that's how we learn what they need."

Even before this fall, their waiting list was more than a year long and their patient list stretched from coast to coast - and beyond.

Then came McCarthy's appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, detailing the treatment she believes brought her son out of the depths of the disorder, which usually appears before age 2 or 3.

Call volume spiked; the waiting list doubled.

Kartzinel wrote the preface to McCarthy's book and appeared with her on Larry King Live, part of a high-profile media blitz that reached fever pitch after the segment on Oprah.

Kartzinel embraced the method in its infancy; he introduced Buckley after her daughter was diagnosed with autism.

There's no proof - hard, solid, double-blind repeated studies proof - that the DAN approach works. In fact, studies haven't found much in the way of conclusive evidence about almost any autism treatment. What researchers do know is that parents are seeking out these so-called "alternative" treatments in droves. And individual success stories are becoming the driving force in the direction of research and treatment for autism.

A 2005 study found that more than a quarter of parents of autistic children reported using special diets for their children, and nearly half reported using vitamin supplements. …