Parents turn to long-shot therapy
April 23, 2007
By Kristen Scharnbert
As unproven as HBOT is for treating
autism, it is widely accepted in other fields of medicine. It has
been used for decades to successfully treat other medical ailments
and is so well-documented to work in the treatment of slow-healing
wounds, burns, carbon monoxide poisoning, intercranial abscesses,
gangrene and the stubborn sores associated with diabetes that many
insurance companies include HBOT in their list of reimbursable
One insurance reimbursement case,
in Georgia, is pointed to most frequently by supporters of HBOT. The
case involved Jimmy Freels, a child with such severe cerebral palsy,
a neological disorder that affects body movement and muscle
coordination, that he was essentially a quadriplegic. With HBOT, the
boy improved to such a degree that he could speak, swim, attend
public school and play wheelchair football, according to court
testimony. In court, brain scans similar to those Markley shows of
autism patients who have undergone HBOT showed significant
improvement in Jimmy's brain blood flow and metabolism in portions
A state judge ordered Georgia
Medicaid to cover HBOT for Jimmy, saying the evidence had showed the
therapy had helped.
The treatment is far from cheap.
HBOT can range from about $180 to $800 per hour.
The therapy is not alleged by most
of its critics to be dangerous. It carries, they say, a rare risk of
prompting seizures, but most seem to believe it is simply a waste of
time and money.
"My fear is that we're going to
waste tax dollars and good time and money chasing quirky ideas,"
said Iyama, who heads an autism clinic in Madison. "The only
effective treatment for autism is educational and behavioral
treatment The rest is just wishful thinking."
Major medical groups have backed
this sentiment. The American Academy of Pediatrics several years ago
issued a statement dismissing most alternative-medicine treatments
Indeed, HBOT has a history of being
oversold as something of a cure-all. The most notorious case came in
the 1920s. A doctor in Cleveland built a compression chamber where
long lines of patients went in hopes of curing everything from
syphilis to cancer. When the treatment failed, the chamber was torn
down and sold for scrap metal.
Iyama fears that parents deeply
saddened and frustrated by their children's condition will make bad
decisions about experimental therapies. She stressed that the most
accepted method for treating autistic children is the kind of
intensive behavior therapy that requires at least 35 hours of work
each week with an autistic child. She fears that some parents are
drawn to treatments that promise faster results.
"I had one mother who told me her
mom was willing to mortgage the family home in order to fund
hyperbaric oxygen therapy for the child," Iyama said.
Wong, whose two children will begin
HBOT in May, is not putting her hopes on any one thing. She
continues to immerse her children in behavioral therapies, to work
with national autism educational experts and adhere to a rigorous
"The bottom line," Wong said, "is
that when you are the parent of an autistic child, you learn to
appreciate the treatments that yield even subtle changes."