Jim and Louise Laidler lost his faith during a trip to Disneyland in 2002 while having breakfast at Goofy’s Kitchen.
The Laidlers are doctors and their sons, Ben and David, have been diagnosed with autism. For several years, on the advice of doctors and parents, the Laidlers treated their children with a wide range of alternative medicine techniques designed to stem or even reverse autistic symptoms. They gave their boys regular vitamin B12, magnesium and dimethylglycine supplements. They kept David’s diet free of gluten and casein, heeding the advice of experts who warned that even the smallest bit of gluten would lead to serious regression. They administered intravenous infusions of secretin, said to have amazing therapeutic effects for a high percentage of autistic children.
Using substances known as chelating agents, the Laidlers also worked to rid Ben and David of heavy metals thought to be accumulated by vaccines and environmental pollutants. With a doctorate in biology as well as a doctorate in medicine, Jim Laidler had become an expert on chelation, speaking nationally and internationally at conferences devoted to autism and alternative approaches.
But by the time the family took a trip to Disneyland, Jim was beginning to doubt the attitude taken at conferences like Defeat Autism Now!, where he first learned about chelation. He backed down when he heard of parents mortgaging their homes to pay for extremely expensive and unproven treatments. The alarms went off when parents and doctors advocated dangerous protocols—over-dosing with vitamin A, using extreme forms of chelation. When he spoke out against them, a prominent conference organizer pulled him aside and warned him never to criticize anyone’s approach, no matter how crazy or dangerous it seems.
It was plagued by those doubts when, inside Goofy’s Kitchen, Jim and Louise returned to their buffet table and noticed that 6-year-old David hadn’t come with them. They saw him standing at the buffet, devouring a waffle. The Laidlers feared the worst. “We were told that the slightest ounce of gluten would crush it,” says Jim. “It was absolutely devastating to watch.” But when the vacation was over, they realized that David was fine. Nothing happened.
When they returned home, the Laidlers took David off his restrictive diet and he continued to improve rapidly. Louise went off Ben’s supplement regimen—without telling Jim—and Ben’s behavior remained the same. Then, after months of soul-searching, Jim Laider took to the internet to announce his “deconversion“of alternative medicine—a kind of penance, but also a warning to others. “I had that guilt to erase,” Jim says. not have others fall in love like I did.”
The Laidlers’ story is a microcosm of the evolving debate over so-called alternative medicine and its cousin, integrative medicine. In 2007, Americans spent $2.9 billion on homeopathic medicines, a treatment based on the belief that tiny amounts of what causes symptoms in a healthy person will alleviate symptoms in a sick person. From nutritional supplements to energy healing to acupuncture, treatments outside of the medical mainstream are big business. But the vast majority of scientists find much of alternative medicine highly problematic.
The supposed mechanisms of energy healing, homeopathy and acupuncture are not scientific and violate the fundamental laws of physics and chemistry. Other alternative treatments, including many nutritional supplements, are untested, unregulated, and sometimes dangerous. This month, the fight took a very public turn when a group of doctors sent a open letter to columbia universitydemanding the school remove Dr. Mehmet Oz, who used his syndicated TV show to promote integrative medicine, including nutritional diets, homeopathy and reiki — a form of energy healing that claims to use “the ‘universal life force energy’ to ‘detoxify the body’ and ‘raise vibrational frequency on physical, mental, emotional and spiritual levels’. But at the same time, integrative medicine has thrust these techniques into the mainstream.
After famed physician Andrew Weil pioneered the idea at the University of Arizona in the late 1990s, 23 medical schools now offer integrative medicine residencies. There are now integrative medicine centers and programs in many of the nation’s top hospitals and universities, including the Cleveland Clinic, Mayo Clinic, dukeand John Hopkins. In 2013, the American Board of Physician Specialties integrative medicine added alongside more traditional certifications such as surgery and dermatology (there were so many applicants that the first thisthe certification exam had to be postponed). And last year, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine — a publicly funded research agency that is part of the National Institute of Health —changed name at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
When Jim Laidler became an alternative medicine apostate, proponents of the treatments he criticized went on the attack. He received death threats from his parents. It’s an intellectually and emotionally murderous battle no matter which side you’re on, a battle that pits not only doctor against layman today, but also doctor against doctor. And as the Laidlers demonstrate, this can pit well-trained doctors against their own psyches. “I was happier because we felt like we were doing something right,” Jim Laidler said of the treatments he gave his sons over so many years. “That’s how the madness starts. You want to believe it works, so you force yourself to see results, and silence the scientific part of your brain.”
“The Death of Your Hopes and Dreams”
The Laidlers’ journey began when Ben was a baby. He was not achieving his goals. Roll, crawl, walk. “I got angry with the baby books,” recalls Louise Laidler. “Every time your kid was supposed to do something, Ben did it a month later.”
Three years later, Louise gave birth to David, and by then they could no longer attribute Ben’s problems to a normal developmental variation. At 3 1/2 years old, his speech consisted largely of echo. He had coordination problems. He avoided eye contact. “I had done a rotation in pediatrics,” Jim said. “I knew what it was like. But I didn’t want to talk about it, not even to Louise. You get superstitious, like if you say something it will come true.”
Shortly after David’s birth, the family moved from Alaska to Portland, where a new pediatrician referred Ben to a developmental specialist. Anxious and exhausted, Jim and Louise sat in the waiting room as their son underwent a battery of tests. Eventually, the doctor called them into his office and gave them the diagnosis: autism spectrum disorder.
With autism, mainstream medicine offers no hope for a cure and few treatment options. Shocked, the Laidlers listened to their doctor explain that Ben could be developing normally or that he could be severely disabled. Only time will tell. Occupational therapy and speech therapy could help with basic skills, and the local school district offered some services. But that’s all the advice they got.