Taking a chance: Hyperbaric therapy and autism - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Taking a chance: Hyperbaric therapy and autism


MADISON (WKOW) --  One of every 110 children is diagnosed with autism. And, while there's no cure, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of treatments: both traditional and non-traditional.

Some parents are turning to a disputed alternative. It's called hyperbaric oxygen therapy, and several women who spoke with 27 News say it's changed the lives of their children.

Meet 6-year-old Luke Stuhley. He's reading, and jumping now, but it wasn't always this way.

Kate Whelan, Luke's mom, said, "He started talking about seven months, just some basic words, momma, dadda, then it just stopped."

It got worse from there.

"He was age two and two months. He just lost all eye contact, and just withdrew. And then we realized something was really wrong."

Luke was diagnosed with autism in July of 2008.

Whelan said, "I had heard about diets, and other sorts of biomedical treatments. I had a lot of people warn me off and say, that's all bogus, don't even do it, don't even think about it."

They tried diet, they tried treatment, then Kate heard about hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

Kate Whelan said, "It can't hurt to try and see if it might help."

Kate took Luke to the Wisconsin Integrative Hyperbaric Center in Fitchburg.

The treatment, costing about $50 to $100 each time, or between $2,000-$2,500 for 40 treatments, increases air pressure inside a chamber.

Inside a space-like hood, the child breathes in 100 percent oxygen, boosting the amount of oxygen in the child's bloodstream and brain.

Luke has received more than 100 treatments, so far. But it was after his first one, Kate says she saw a difference in her son.

She said, "He said, 'Look at me Mommy,' I said, 'What do you got,' and he said 'Look glasses, and then he handed them to me and I said 'Oh do you want me to put them on? It was my first conversation with him ever."

Kate says she saw improvements in Luke's vocabulary and his ability to understand conversations.

Whelan said, "Just from the first day, it was so exciting, something like clicked in his brain. He was able to access language he hadn't been able to before."

The center in Fitchburg was established by Shannon Kenitz, a mom who says she saw similar results with her daughter Grace 10 years ago.

Kenitz said, "Grace was a very sick little girl, kept alive by a feeding tube. She was blind, had seizures, and was failure to thrive at age three. On a good day, she weighed between 11-15 pounds."

Grace is still here at age 12, and now Shannon has made it her mission to validate hyperbaric therapy.

Kenitz said, "I do think it's one of those therapies, how chiropractic came into the world, how it's being accepted. Little by little, my hope is that in that same way, they start to cover that treatment normally. That hyperbarics is one of those things that's going to be covered by most insurance companies."

One study released in 2009 took 33 children through 40 sessions with hyperbaric therapy treatment. They were compared to 29 children who didn't undergo treatment.

Physicians found improvements in overall functioning and social interaction.

Dr. Kyle Van Dyke works at the Fitchburg center. He said, "The exact mechanisms are unclear. There's a number of different reasons we think it may be working. We know that children with autism have increased levels of what's called oxidative stress. Hyperbaric therapy can help increase your anti-oxidant production in the body."

But is it safe? In 2009, a hyperbaric chamber in Florida exploded, killing a small boy.

Here in Fitchburg, they say they don't use that type of chamber.

Dr. Van Dyke said, "The chambers we use are specially designed so they're being filled with room air, so there's no increased oxygen there so that would be a danger in that way."

We took this information to the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin. The center focuses on research and services for those with developmental disabilities and neurodegenerative diseases.

Dr. Tina Iyama, a Developmental Pediatrician with UW Hospitals & Clinics, said, "Some things have evidence. I would go with evidence and plausible as a guideline for choosing therapies. A hyperbaric chamber is not on that list."

Doctors there say they recommend only evidence-based interventions.

Dr. Iyama said, "Knowing what we know about the brain, its development, and when autism starts which is very early in life, that you would be able to change something about how the brain works and make autism better, it's not on that list of plausible things."

But the only evidence Kate Whelan needs is the progress she sees in her own child.

Whelan said, "It was after dive number 15, dive number 15. He came up to me, independently, totally unprompted. Put his arms around me, and said, 'I love you, Mommy.' And that made it all worthwhile."

The Wisconsin Integrative Hyperbaric Center is hosting an open house Thursday, November 3 from 5 - 7 p.m.

For more information, for links to studies on hyperbarics, and past videos, click on the links to the left and above this story.

For more on Grace Kenitz and others, click on the video link above.

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