Working as a pediatrician in Atlanta, Georgia, Hansa Bhargava, M.D., has heard parents inquire about alternative methods to treat their child’s autism. Each time, she offers them the same piece of advice: be very careful about any treatment plans found on the internet.
“I try to navigate them back to science and back to what we know is proven as solutions as opposed to going after solutions that could be dangerous,” says Dr. Bhargava.
She knows all about the risky methods floating around on social media promising to relieve patients of autism, a developmental disorder with no known cure. One she’s particular worried about is bleach therapy. This so-called autism cure involves kids taking a diluted form of bleach orally or through an enema. "Drinking chemicals can have an effect on not just bacteria, but anything that’s organic or living. It’s very dangerous to be doing this,” says Dr. Bhargava.
The practice isn’t new: a man named Jim Humble started promoting the idea that bleach products can heal a slew of medical issues more than two decades ago. His chlorine dioxide mixture called Miracle Mineral Solution could even cure autism, he claimed. Humble’s homemade bleach has been banned in several countries, including Canada and Ireland, and the FDA issued warnings about it in 2010 after users reported “severe nausea, vomiting, and life-threatening low blood pressure.” Nearly 10 years later, the FDA issued another warning in August 2019, saying "ingesting these products is the same as drinking bleach" and deemed it "potentially dangerous."
Drinking large amounts of chlorine dioxide can lead to irritation in the mouth, esophagus, or stomach. It’s possible to also experience respiratory problems like shortness of breath “because of damage to the substances in blood that carry oxygen throughout the body,” according to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry.
But some parents are still trying to cure their children's autism with bleach, a product commonly used to disinfect surfaces, whiten clothes, and remove stains from fabric. A recent NBC article profiled two mothers who have reported more than 100 parents to the local Child Protective Services division in the past three years for forcing their children to drink not only chlorine dioxide, but also other things like urine and turpentine. Melissa Eaton and Amanda Seigler, who both have children with autism, said these parents admitted to using terrifying methods on their children in private Facebook groups made for parents with children with autism.
And it’s children of all ages who are being forced to try these fake cures. A subsequent NBC news report spoke of a father desperately trying to stop his ex-wife from using bleach on their adult sons, aged 28 and 27, but he hasn’t received much help. A spokesman from local police in Kansas said there “wasn’t enough evidence that chlorine dioxide was dangerous,” while a caseworker with the state’s division of adult protective services said “she didn’t see the situation as serious enough for the state to take action.”
Facebook, on the other hand, has stepped in and deleted groups promoting fake cures, while YouTube has removed videos of the same nature. Earlier this year, Amazon also stopped selling books about autism cures, including Kerri Rivera’s Healing the Symptoms Known as Autism. But that's not enough to stop all the misinformation that's so easy for parents to find online.
How can parents filter out fake information about autism online?
With 1 in 59 children being diagnosed with autism (up from 1 in 150 in 2000), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it's common for parents to scour the internet to learn more about the condition. But experts encourage parents to be vigilant about what they read, especially when it comes to non-evidence-based treatments—even when they claim to work quickly or be cutting edge. Bleach therapy isn't the only one causing concern: There is also chelation therapy, which removes heavy metals like lead and mercury from the body. When not administered properly, it can have serious side effects, including seizures, damage to the kidney, liver, or brain, and respiratory failure.
"If it sounds harsh, if it sounds a little scary, don’t do it, and first and foremost, always talk to a professional. And if you don’t agree with what they say, then talk to another one, get a second and third opinion," says Mandi Silverman, PsyD, MBA.
She recommends parents also be careful of alternatives to treatment even if they aren't as harmful as bleach, including special diets like the gluten-free and casein-free diets. Aside from anecdotal feedback about these diets helping children with autism, "there’s no evidence to support that those diets are effective," says Dr. Silverman, the senior director of the Autism Center at the Child Mind Institute.
Dr. Bhargava says parents should be wary of social media because even popular trends or stories shared thousands of times can be dangerous and untrue. Instead, read information from well-recognized and credible websites and organizations, such as the CDC and Autism Speaks. Also, look at websites ending in .edu (those are usually academic institutions) or ones with .gov or .org as an easy way to prove credibility.
And most importantly, avoid missing appointments with the pediatrician. He or she will pay attention to a child's development and implement early intervention, which is key to helping curb symptoms.
“I just want parents to know that we are here for them," says Dr. Bhargava. "Instead of going online and looking at people that may be trying to push a product, like bleach, go back to your doctor and talk to them about this. We all really want the best for your child."