Treatment of most neurological diseases including autism has always been trial and error and many times mothers have lost hope. Some have tried speech therapy, physiotherapy and tongue tie surgeries for their autistic children to little or no improvement at all.
With the new stem cell therapy, hope for patients suffering from neurological disorders has been restored. An awareness workshop organised at Hotel Africana in Kampala last month brought together mothers with autistic children. They formed a WhatsApp group called UG Stem Cell Therapy which they hope to use to counsel mothers and mobilise for treatment for their children.
April being an autism awareness month, the therapy comes just in time for these mothers because it can reverse most of the abnormalities caused by autism especially if they are diagnosed and treated early.
What really happens?
Autism is one of the neurological development disorders characterised by impaired social interactions, communication, mood alterations, repetitive behaviour, and metabolic issues. The disorder is a spectrum comprising a range of conditions from mild, moderate to severe neuro-developmental disorders.
Dr Nandini Gokulchandran, a neuro-surgeon at NeuroGen Brain and Spine Institute in Mumbai, India, says the exact cause of the disorder is unknown but risk factors such as genetic predisposition, lack of oxygen at birth, prolonged labour, anaemia, stress, viral infections may predispose a child to autism.
“The symptoms of autism start to show in a child at 18 to 24 months with a regress in their development and once they are not diagnosed early, the child may have life-long defects,” she says.
She adds that the symptoms include avoiding eye contact, association problems and low engagement levels, speech problems, trouble expressing needs and emotions and sensitivity to smell, taste, light, water or sound.
“Once early diagnosis is done, interventions are possible and can help such a child’s symptoms to reverse from mild to total cure, moderate to mild or even severe to moderate,” Dr Nandini says.
For about five years, Tony Mbuga’s son, did not speak a single word and as second time parents, the Mbugas thought their child was just having delayed development. He had association problems, did not maintain eye contact and his level of engagement was really low.
“It was difficult for us to go to certain places with him because he had a great phobia for water. Children in the neighbourhood bullied him. People would curse and say we raised our child so badly. I used to shield him by keeping him in the house,” Mbuga says.
He would ask friends about the development of their children but he would not tell them his child had a problem. Not even the family members.
He affirms that it is very hard for a parent to accept that their child has a problem. So finding a solution usually takes a while because people do not know what the problem is.
“I lived in denial; asking why he was not like other children. I took him for the tongue tie surgery but the operation was still not helpful. The speech therapy only helped him make sounds but would not pronounce the words,” he recalls. Mbuga says he then enrolled his son in school so that he would learn to associate with other children. But when this did not help, Mbuga opened up to someone about the boy’s situation and was told to visit a specialist who would examine his son to rule out autism.
After the diagnosis, accepting that his child had a lifetime disability was one of the biggest challenges. “It was difficult to accept that my child would live like this forever. I directed all the anger and resentment towards him. This put me at loggerheads with my wife and my marriage was at stake.”
“However, after counselling, I realised that he needed me. Even when he is having a fit or bad day, he calms down when I hold him and show that I love and care for him,” Mbuga says adding, “I believe there are many other parents in the same situation. Autistic children are very sensitive to emotions and the more you get angry, the more you push them away. A calm and loving environment helps them to keep calm and improve greatly.”
Stem cell therapy
Every milestone he accomplished was a score for Mbuga and when he heard that there was a hospital in India that offered treatment to reduce some of the symptoms, he enrolled his son for the treatment in July 2017. The treatment was a success and after a week, his son was able to speak for the first time in 10 years.
“Since the treatment, my son’s phobia stopped. He communicates, associates with colleagues and his cognitive and motor skills have greatly improved”, he says. Because they need to learn to interact, Mbuga encourages parents with autistic children to enroll them in normal schools and not special needs schools.
Treatment for autism and other neuro-developmental disorders is categorised into educational interventions and medical management.
“Most children after proper diagnosis are prescribed anti-convulsion drugs. While drugs and medications have been the traditional responses to autism treatments, they did not fully relieve the symptoms or address the true root causes of the disorder,” says Dr Nandini.
The new break-through uses bone marrow cells from the patient’s hip joint injected into the patient’s spinal cord. It is considered an effective approach to treating autism which is based on the unique ability of stem cells to impact metabolism, immune system, and restore damaged cells and the brain.
If a child is diagnosed with autism, it is because areas of the brain that work to regulate memory, concentration, attention, and speech become damaged. “Treating autism with stem cell therapy improves blood and oxygen flow to the brain to help re-grow damaged neurons, and helps in formation of new arteries in the brain.
The therapy can be used to treat other disorders such as cerebral palsy, spinal cord injury, stroke, head injury, mental retardation, dementia, multiple sclerosis. The therapy gives quick results and the patient usually responds within the first week and the pro-gress continues with in a year. The treatment is usually accompanied with physiotherapy especially for children with mobility problems.
“We are taking awareness programmes about stem cell therapy to all parts of the world because through the therapy, more than 800 patients have been treated and the results are positive,” says Andelene Thysse, the African representative for NeuroGen Brain and Spine Institute, during an awareness conference.
From experience, Mbuga says, healing for autistic children starts with the parents’ acceptance that the child has a problem and needs help. They must create avenues to help the child by teaching them to respond to different environments and how to live independently.
He adds that parents must encourage play and social interaction with other children.
“Imitate your child and try to focus on their nonverbal communication. Since they are unable to speak, they usually use facial expressions and other nonverbal ways to communicate. Simplify your language so that your child is able to follow. When they say something, pause for some time and maintain eye contact. Watch out for any sound or gesture and respond promptly. This helps them feel the power of communication,” he advises.
Reducing risk during pregnancy
• Continue a high-quality organic diet that eliminates or greatly reduces sugar and other processed foods.
• Continue an exercise programme to improve circulation and stimulate peristalsis (intestinal motility slows as a result of pregnancy hormones. So in order to continue having good bowel movements, daily exercise is essential). In addition, take good sources of fibre such as nuts, whole grains and seeds among others.
• Eat at least 80 grammes of protein per day. Get high-quality organic lean sources of protein including turkey, chicken, nuts, meat, and eggs.
• If sick, rest; drink lots of hot water with lemon, take extra Vitamin C.
• There is a higher risk of autism in cesarean-delivered babies. So although it is tempting to think of skipping labour, it is actually Mother Nature’s way of preparing the child for life outside the womb. The baby’s neurological function is enhanced by naturally passing through the birth canal, and through cranial molding.