Baptist University's School of Chinese Medicine opened a privately financed speciality clinic in December in the Tsim Sha Tsui Kai Fong Welfare Association Building on Nathan Road. It features a 'Children Autism Treatment Zone' - a place where children get weekly acupuncture treatments.
The zone has been placed in a far corner of the clinic with soundproofed walls.
'Some children get upset when the needles are inserted, and there can be a lot of noise,' says acupuncture specialist Lau Chi-ling, one of the clinic's Chinese medicine practitioners.
A young patient sits for 30 to 60 minutes with needles inserted in their head, neck, jaw, hands and feet. The treatment rooms, furnished with a television, sofa, table and books, are designed to distract and entertain them while they wait for the process to take effect.
Warren Yip Hun-yun, 13, is treated there once a month by Dr Peng Zeng-fu, director of the autism zone and a senior lecturer with the clinical division of the School of Chinese Medicine. Yip has been getting acupuncture therapy since being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at age four.
After the first eight months of acupuncture in the head and tongue, along with regular appointments with a speech therapist, he could speak a complete sentence.
'Acupuncture works for many of my patients. Their speech improves and they are much calmer,' says Peng. Autism is a developmental disorder that appears in the first three years of life and affects the normal development of social and communication skills.
Different people with autism can have very different symptoms, so health care providers think of autism as a 'spectrum' disorder. There is no known cause for autism, although there is strong scientific evidence that genetics may be a factor.
Peng believes acupuncture works for autism because the stimulation of the heart meridian - which starts from the heart and branches into the eyes (including the tongue), small intestine and little finger on the left hand - has an effect on brain activity. 'The ability to control emotion and improve speech patterns is related to the heart system,' he says.
Some patients do see results after a few sessions, but others never do. Hong Kong resident John Greene decided to try tongue acupuncture on his autistic six-year-old son after seeing positive results from a 2003 study by Professor Virginia Wong Chun-nei of the University of Hong Kong's department of paediatrics and adolescent medicine. The study stated that acupuncture therapy had demonstrated improvement in core features (language, social communication and cognition) and secondary features (hyperactivity, attention, aggression, temper tantrum, sleep and functional independence).
A Chinese medicine specialist at a clinic in Central recommended that Greene's son have acupuncture twice a day for 60 sessions. There was no progress in the boy's condition.
'As with so many other treatments, tongue acupuncture did not appear to work for our son,' Greene says.
Peng admits experts don't know why acupuncture works for some patients and not others. But this doesn't deter parents from wanting to try the therapy. Peng says his waiting list for new autistic patients aged from two to 14 years old is in the hundreds, and it takes about a year to get a place.
Patients at the autism zone require about 30 to 40 needles per session. More than half are inserted into the head. Each session costs about HK$300, and it's recommended that patients go through six to 12 months of treatment, starting with twice weekly appointments.
Yip's mother, Brenda Yau So-ming, says her son has symptoms such as insomnia and anxiety, and that 'without acupuncture treatment, he can't sleep'.
She says that acupuncture is effective and 'reasonably affordable' compared with other therapies such as speech, applied behaviour analysis and sensory integration therapies, which cost as much as HK$800 per session.
A close friend recommended the treatment, and Yau took months to overcome her fear of it for her son. Initially, the boy was afraid and had to be held down while the needles were inserted. Now he doesn't fight it. 'We think he understands that acupuncture helps, because if he didn't want it, we probably couldn't hold him down now,' Yau says.
Autism is on the rise, according to statistics from the Health Department. The number of new cases rose from 1,023 in 2008 to 1,790 in 2010, or 75 per cent. Last April, Food and Health Secretary Dr York Chow Yat-ngok estimated there were 70,000 autism patients in Hong Kong.
Dr Ronald Leaf - co-director of Autism Partnership, a global agency dedicated to the behavioural treatment of autism - says: 'Tragically, in autism many treatments are reported to be effective, but the vast majority are ineffective.'
Toby Mountjoy, associate director of Autism Partnership, adds: 'Hopeful parents will invest money in all kinds of treatments and will do them in conjunction with others - three or four at a time. This makes it very difficult to know what is actually working for the child.'
HKU's Wong says there are many claims from therapists of complementary and alternative medicine of curing autism, but there is little scientific proof.
In April last year, her team of researchers published a study review to determine the effectiveness of acupuncture in ASD patients in improving core autistic features.
The study included a review of 10 trials involving a total of 390 children aged between three and 18 years.
The researchers found no evidence that any form of acupuncture is effective in the treatment of ASD. But Wong says they also couldn't rule out that 'certain forms of acupuncture might ameliorate certain aspects of ASD in some patients'.