What is autism?
Autism, aka Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is not a single disorder, but a general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development, present from early childhood. It is a spectrum disorder, meaning there is a wide degree of variation in how it effects people, and how severely. Some autistics are unable to communicate or care for themselves. Others have above average intelligence and are completely self-sufficient. It is, however, generally characterized by difficulty in using language, in social interaction, in communicating and forming relationships. It is also associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention, repetitive behavior, and physical health issues such as gastrointestinal problems and sleep disorders.
Being that it is such a widely varying group of conditions, there is not one, simple group of symptoms to watch for. The list below is a generalization, and in no way meant as a diagnostic tool. Remember, just because your child has a few autism-like symptoms does not mean he/she is autistic.
Problems with social interaction
- Difficulty making friends
- Resistance to being touched
- Difficulty reading the emotions of others, reactions and nonverbal cues
- Prefers to be alone, detached
- Unusual or inappropriate gestures, body language, facial expressions
- Lack of interest in others
- Does not share interests or achievements
Problems with speech and language
- Delayed speech (not speaking after the age of 2)
- Difficulty communicating his/her wants and needs
- Speaking in an inappropriate volume or tone of voice
- Repeating nonsensical words or phrases over and over
- Not understanding humor, irony or sarcasm (taking what is said literally)
- Difficulty starting a conversation or engaging in one
- Does not understand simple questions or statements
Obsessive behavior and restricted play
- Repetitive body movements or ‘ticks’ (rocking, hand flapping, etc.)
- Clumsiness or abnormal posture or gait
- Extreme attachment to random objects (a rock, keys, light switches, etc.)
- Preoccupation with specific topics, often involving numbers or symbols (calendars, maps, license plates, etc.)
- Obsessive need for order and routine, gets upset by any small change in their environment
- Preoccupation with moving parts or spinning objects (e.g. spinning the wheels on a toy car, rather than playing with the car)
There is no one, simple cause of autism. It is believed that there are a large number of contributing factors. Scientists have recently discovered rare gene mutations associated with autism, however most of these are not sufficient enough to cause autism on their own. Most cases appear to be caused by a combination of genetic, nutritional and environmental factors in early brain development.
When these genetic mutations are present, it is somewhat more likely that environmental and nutritional factors will result in autism. There is a growing list of toxins from heavy metals, pesticides, food additives, even ingredients in shampoos that are being linked to autism and other learning disabilities. Today, we are all exposed to an unprecedented amount of chemicals, industrial pollutants, pesticides, food additives and more, most of which have unknown effects on our health. One recent study on umbilical cord blood found that, at birth, the average newborn at birth has already been exposed to 287 different chemicals! At birth, the blood-brain barrier is not yet fully developed, meaning that anything present in the blood, can get to the brain. When a fetus or newborn has 287 industrial chemicals pumping through their body and into their brain, an adverse effect is not surprising.
The concept of epigenetics plays an important role in the development of autist (and many other conditions, too). Epigenetics involves the susceptibility and expression of certain genes that are induced by environmental insults in a susceptible individual. Many with autism have been found to have impaired detoxification pathways and have more difficulty clearing wastes and pollutants from their bodies. Furthermore, recent research indicates that mothers of autistic children have had greater exposure to pesticides while pregnant that typically developing children.
The rate of autism has been on the rise, with one out of every 90 children having some form of the disorder (with some estimates being even greater). With this rapid increase, we need to consider what has changed recently. Genetics has not changed. What has changed are environmental factors, including the increasing number of chemicals we are exposed to from pesticides, flame retardants, plasticizers, solvents, personal care products, medicines, genetically modified foods (GMOs), artificial sweeteners and flavors. These varied factors have a clear impact on the expression of our genes.
If we are all exposed to these chemicals, why aren’t we all autistic?
Each of us is biochemically different, which is why two brothers may have the same genes, but one may develop a disorder, such as mitochondrial dysfunction while the other never does – even if exposed to the same environmental factors in utero or beyond. Simply put, some people are predisposed to react to a chemical substance differently than others.
It has been found that many autistic children have a defect in their ability to excrete certain chemicals and therefore, are more genetically susceptible to the chemicals’ effects. Many also have an inability to metabolize high levels of metals which result in neuro-inflammation, oxidative stress, impaired mitochondrial function and neurotransmitter imbalances.
What does this mean for prevention of autism?
While the cause of autism is still not clear. However, looking at the data and reviewing the common denominators in these children, what is clear is that there is an undeniable link between the chemicals found in our environment and autism. The best we can do – to help reduce the numbers and/ or the severity of cases – is to eliminate these chemicals from our lives as much as we can by eating a healthy diet of natural, unprocessed foods rich in vitamins and nutrients, rounding out our diets with nutritional supplements as advised by a healthcare professional and reducing our exposure to phthalates (like those in nail polish), organophosphates (often found in pesticides), PCBs, (found in plastic products including most baby bottles), solvents (found in furniture and new carpets) and heavy metals such as lead and mercury. These measures should, if possible, begin with the mom in the pre- or peri-conception time, at the latest, and continue with the birth of the child.
Traditionally, autism is treated with a combination of medication, behavioral training and specialized therapies, including occupational, speech and physical therapy. Being that symptoms vary so greatly from one person to the next, a highly personalized approach is necessary. The main goal of treatment is to improve the overall ability of the patient to function in society.
At the Magaziner Center for Wellness, we approach disease and imbalance by first determining all factors contributing to the condition and creating an individualized, patient-centered treatment plan. We utilize extremely thorough series of blood and urine tests, as well as a complete examination of every aspect of the body, from mitochondrial function to heavy metal toxicity and more. We then create a personalized care plan based on these findings, which may include safe, nontoxic dietary supplements, antifungal agents, and dietary modifications. We also place great emphasis on the detoxification and evaluation and treatment of environmental pollutants and toxic metals, including mercury, lead, cadmium and aluminum. Treatment may also include improving digestion and assimilation along with avoidance of certain foods which could be harmful to his or her wellbeing. We often recommend hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which greatly increases oxygen uptake to the brain, nervous system, skeletal muscle, and all body tissues and has been found useful in the treatment of the symptoms of autism. Many with autism also have impaired gut bacteria that may contribute to some of the physical complaints often exhibited. A thorough evaluation of gut health is frequently necessary to improve autistic symptoms.
In addition to the medical and biochemical treatments that we use, behavioral, social, speech, occupational and physical therapies are also recommended.