Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

There Is ALWAYS an Alternative

Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

There Is ALWAYS an Alternative

Article excerpt

The past decade has seen a rise in treatment approaches that are called "alternative" therapies or medicine. Many of them involve "natural" medicines containing a variety of plant derivatives. There has also been a parallel rebellion against the use of the ever-growing cornucopia of "approved" pharmaceuticals. Some of these natural remedies for specific disorders have been with us for a long time. Others are treatments that have been proposed by parents when physicians have told them there is no hope for their child. Some history and context of current practice may be helpful for parents as they consider "alternative" approaches.


There has always been great interest in the natural medicines from the earliest days of our country. When Merriwether Lewis was preparing his expedition, he spent a month with Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, one of the great pioneers of medicine in America. Dr. Rush theorized about disorders the travelers might encounter on their journey and provided Lewis with plants and herbs from South America to use as remedies. He also asked Lewis to keep track of the plants that the native peoples were using.

At the turn of the last century, there were a number of homeopathic medical schools and hospitals in our country. They were committed to the use of natural plants and herbs in treatment. Few of these schools now remain. The scientific approaches to developing medicine tended to obscure the value of the natural approaches, but they have never really disappeared. Many pharmaceutical companies are now devoting significant parts of their research budgets to identify which ingredients in plants have therapeutic value. The problems in purchasing these natural medicines are that the manufacturers are not regulated and the buyer cannot depend on consistency, purity, or dosage strength between brands and even batches of the same brand. Further, it is often difficult to know how these products will interact with the many medicines that children with disabilities often take. In many ways there are no real "new" treatment perspectives.


Although holistic means considering everything that affects a person's body, it has come to represent strategies involving the psychological and social aspects of life as well. New treatment approaches have also come from arenas outside of "Western" medicine. For many years, parents and professionals have described new treatment approaches that they claim have worked when nothing else has. These have been effective for some children but not others. I also know that even the most effective "mainstream" therapies do not work for all children. Parents are usually more realistic about a treatment's chances of success than professionals believe them to be. We professionals should all respect parents as allies in the treatment of their children, but only time and experience allow us to truly appreciate their wisdom and insight.


In the early 1900s, medicine went from a single-germ theory of disease to a multidimensional view. It was assumed that biological, social, and psychological factors contributed to the onset and course of an illness, and that each factor had an impact on the others. An illness mainly caused by biological factors affected an individual's interpersonal relationships and his or her self-image. However, even today, various specialists continue to focus on their own areas of interest and ignore or pay lip service to the other factors.

A good example of a multidimensional view in treating illness is embodied by the Framingham Heart Study. It was the first major study that provided a comprehensive examination of each dimension of heart disease and offered a total rehabilitation program. The researchers identified cholesterol as the major biological factor to be controlled in the prevention of heart disease. They also included the role of relaxation and physical exercise. …

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