Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) is a form of therapy that involves breathing pure oxygen in a hyperbaric chamber. While originally designed to treat “the bends” in divers, its applications have expanded to include carbon monoxide poisoning, gangrene, osteomyelitis (acute bone pain) and now, autism. HBOT enhances blood flow to the brain, reduces inflammation and oxidative stress and mobilizes stem cells from the bone marrow. Deficits in all these areas have been identified in the onset of autism.
Each session in the chamber costs in the neighborhood of $100 and is not covered by insurance. The typical protocol for autism calls for breathing pure oxygen for sixty minutes at 1.3 to 1.5 ATA, which corresponds to a depth of ten to seventeen feet of seawater (FSW).
Reported benefits from the treatment include improvements in language, eye contact, socialization, appetite and digestion. Reduction in intestinal inflammation involving parasites and bacteria was also cited. Because many children with autism enjoy small, enclosed spaces, claustrophobia is rarely a problem for the child (although it could be for an accompanying adult).
Drawbacks may include initial earaches during the first session. And a freak accident occurred in Florida in 2009 in which a grandmother and her grandson died when their hyperbaric chamber exploded, shocking the nation and doing the reputation of HBOT for autism no favors.
Science is still lagging in their conclusions about HBOT for autism. A promising study of HBOT is somewhat marred by the fact that it was undertaken at the behest of business interests and fellow scientists found the structure of the investigation somewhat weak. Some doctors question whether the quality time spent in close quarters between accompanying adult and child is providing the real benefit and new studies must somehow take this factor into account.
More scientific testing is currently in the works to verify the glowing recommendations of parents of children with autism who have tried hyperbaric therapy and a growing list of medicos who also affirm its value.