Every time we think we’ve seen and heard it all, there will be some new trendy wave in the alternative treatment of autism. These treatments range from the reasonable, like selective diets and experimental play-therapy, to the utterly bizarre, like crystal healing and “blood purification.” The latest in bizarre autism treatment? Camel milk– milk, from the teat of a camel, which costs more than its weight in gold in the U.S. Parents are claiming that camel milk has the ability to reduce the symptoms of autism or even cure it entirely.
Camel milk as a treatment for autism is neither scientifically founded nor completely discredited. Overall, there are actually relatively few treatments for autism that are truly evidence-based. The Autism Science Foundation recommends only a few possible options– including speech therapy, occupational therapy, applied behavioral analysis, and early intensive behavioral intervention-for parents seeking to “cure” autism or reduce its symptoms. These treatments are backed by solid and extensive evidence showing that they improve function and quality of life for autistic children, with a low risk of any harmful side effects.
Similarly, the Food and Drug Administration has released many statements condemning the use of unproven and potentially harmful autism treatments. These, they say, can not only strip parents of much-needed money and resources, but can actually be harmful to children with autism, with some treatments actually causing life-threatening side effects. Although the FDA does not mention camel milk in particular, it does warn against any trendy treatment that hasn’t yet been investigated by science: “The bottom line is this-if it’s an unproven or little known treatment, talk to your health care professional before buying or using these products.”
Camel milk is a bit different from an average unscientific “miracle cure,” though, because it does carry a relatively low risk of side effects and, while evidence of its efficacy is limited, it’s not entirely unavailable. One study published in 2013 in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, for example, found some pretty promising results. Compared to autistic kids given cow’s milk as a placebo, autistic kids drinking camel’s milk scored better on the well-known CARS (Childhood Autism Rating Scale) test. The scientists behind the study also documented that kids drinking camel’s milk had less molecular cell damage than kids drinking cow’s milk. The conclusion? “Our findings suggest that camel milk could play an important role in decreasing oxidative stress […] and improvement of autistic behaviour.”
These findings are certainly promising, but that doesn’t make them conclusive. One major problem with the study was the use of cow’s milk as a placebo. Cow’s milk contains more lactose than camel milk and also contains beta lactoglobulin and beta casein, the two main compounds responsible for milk allergy, which are not found in camel’s milk. Combined, the compounds in cow’s milk often cause stomach upsets in sensitive children, both on and off the autism spectrum, and these in turn can lead to behavioral and emotional problems. The authors of the study even acknowledged that many of the children being studied were known to be lactose intolerant or allergic to milk. With cow’s milk as a placebo and many milk-intolerant participants, the study’s findings could easily be rewritten as, “Autistic children with cow’s milk allergies may be able to drink camel’s milk instead.”
But, with soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, and lactose-free cow’s milk widely available, is there a good reason to spend a small fortune on camel’s milk for autistic kids who can’t drink cow’s milk? Furthermore, the study had far too few participants to draw any real conclusions. In medicine, for a treatment to be considered effective, it takes not sixty participants (the number of children involved in the camel’s milk study) but tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands. With only sixty participants, there’s no way to know if the improvement among kids drinking camel’s milk was coincidental or not.
Ultimately, if you can afford it and if it doesn’t stop you from pursuing other well-established, evidence-based treatments, there’s no harm in trying out camel’s milk as an alternative treatment for autism in children. However, until a much larger and better-designed study has found that camel’s milk can treat autism, you might want to keep your money and spend it on treatments that are known to work.