So last week, I was in a discussion with someone who firmly believed that autism is strictly genetic. I thought that was interesting, because there is so much evidence and research today that makes a compelling case for the environmental causes contributing to the rise in numbers of kids diagnosed with autism.* That, however, gives me a great excuse to write this article and answer the question:
“Is autism medical?”
Let me share with you this article I found on Autism Digest:
At the Autism 2008 Geneva Center Conference in Toronto, Dr. Buie showed videos of three young nonverbal autistic children with terrible behaviors that were caused by non-obvious stomach distress. On the first video, a little girl refused to sit still to do a task…All three children suffered from acid reflux (heartburn), the most common GI problem. Although none of them expressed overt signs of GI distress, such as constipation, vomiting, diarrhea, or touching/rubbing their stomach or chest, their behaviors were a direct result of their severe discomfort. …All three children greatly improved after they were treated for acid reflux.
Sure that’s an anecdote, but these stories are cropping up everywhere. Additionally, the authors aren’t stating that autism was cured by fixing reflux, but rather, that extreme symptoms were quickly resolved by considering something many doctors won’t: That autism clearly has a medical aspect.
So It’s Not Genetics?
Let me step back and take a look at the “it’s genetic” argument. While it is possible that genetic factors contribute, research shows that even when siblings have autism, they do not share the same genetic risk factors. In other words, there are enough differences in autistic siblings that something other than genetics is coming into play.
Many researchers agree that must mean an environmental factor is also contributing. What is an “environmental factor”? Well, as well moms who have long been on a journey to heal our children of the negative impacts of autism love to say, “Genetics loaded the gun, but environment pulled the trigger.” If you are at genetic risk for autism as a fetus or in fact, toxins from your environment can tip the scale towards autism.
So, why on earth would toxins affect some babies and not others? To understand that, we need to learn a little about a topic called “epigenetics” and the science of methylation.
What is Epigenetics?
It’s an ugly word, isn’t it? And it sounds like the time you should be resting your head on your day planner for a little shut eye. But bear with me – this is really important!
Back in middle or high school, we all learned about DNA being the building blocks of life. DNA is a molecule that carries the genetic instructions (passed from mother and father) to determine the basis for development of a living organism. DNA is hard coded with these instructions.
However, those genes then get to “express” themselves. The DNA doesn’t change, but the way the genes turn on and off can. From the website, WhatIsEpigenetics.com:
“Epigenetics is the study of mechanisms that switch genes on or off. It is involved in every aspect of life and such reversible, heritable changes affect the way we live as well as our future generations.”
What Makes Genes Turn On and Off?
In further reading this site, there may be other methods that flip these switches, but DNA methylation is the one that is studied most. Please pardon me as I take out the long, technical explanation and jump ahead. While DNA methylation is:
“vital to healthy growth and development, it also enables the expression of retroviral genes to be suppressed, along with other potentially dangerous sequences of DNA that have entered and may damage the host.” (“What is DNA Methylation?” News Medical, emphasis my own.)
So when methylation processes develop improperly or turn on or off these genes in an adverse way, it interrupts the “methylation cycle.” According to Dr. Amy Yasko,
“The Methylation Cycle is a biochemical pathway that manages or contributes to a wide range of crucial bodily functions, including:
She also writes,
“Methylation is involved in almost every bodily biochemical reaction, and occurs billions of times every second in our cells.”
According to Yasko, lower methylation contributes to many chronic conditions, including autism. Dr. Yasko has lots of resources so that you can learn more about this important topic, and you can even several of her books, such as “Autism: Pathways to Recovery” to learn more about this topic. It’s fascinating but scientific read.
What Does All This Mean?
When I read part of Yasko’s book, she explained how the methylation cycle may not properly develop. A big issue with this broken process is improper detoxification, which is common in kids with autism. For most of us, our bodies naturally detox low levels of harmful chemicals (think FDA approved levels), such as lead, mercury, arsenic or aluminum. Obviously, those are not chemicals you want in your body, but there are trace amounts in our food, our water, products, paints, medicines and yes, even vaccines, that are processed out normally if they are in low enough levels. However, a broken cycle means that the typical detoxification process is not working well enough to entirely clean your system out. They remain and can have harmful effects on the brain.
And that’s why I stress the importance of detox, not just for kids, but for whole families. That’s why we eat mostly USDA Organic certified foods, no matter the cost. But as you look at that list above of what the methylation cycle affects, you’ll see that detoxification is only part of the issue. Immune function is affected as well.
Let me guess. Your autistic child never gets a cold or flu no matter who else in the house does, right? Or only rarely, or only the same few things, over and over. We all walk along thinking how great that is – a child who is never sick.
Unfortunately, when a child is “never sick,” it may mean that his or her immune system is not functioning properly. All the cues of illness – coughing, fever, rashes – are your body’s defenses against the illness. In that case, a “never sick” body is never fighting the illness. The body is simply not properly utilizing its defenses.
The Role of Gut Bacteria
But we’re not done yet in determining why autism may have some of it’s roots in medical problems. Inflammation is another serious issue, also harmed by a malfunctioning methylation process. Ever notice your child has a puffed out belly? That’s inflammation and that may be caused by an imbalance in the gut bacteria, for example, a gut overrun with candida.
Does your child have trouble with eating or bowel movements? Constipation or runny stools? Frequent diarrhea? Difficulty potty training at a late age? These problems are not in the brain and they will not be solved with a daily dose of Miralax or other laxatives. They are caused by an improper balance of gut bacteria. According to Scientific American, studies have shown that the microbes found in the gut of kids with autism differ from those found in kids who did not have autism.
The Science on Autism Today
A few years ago, autism was considered a developmental, lifelong disorder. But today, we know that children with severe autism also have:
- GI tract issues
- Immune system problems
- Gut bacteria imbalances
- Problems with metabolism
- Problems with methylation
N of One Autism Research Foundation gives us hope:
“There is reason to believe these children can get better.”
Epigenetics gives us hope that we can “reprogram” these genes. Alternative therapies give us hope that we can detox our kids in the meantime. Natural approaches to health and real food intervention, like the GAPS diet, can improve certain behaviors and relieve gut pain.
The paradigm is shifting, but it needs to shift faster. We need to stop telling parents there is no hope outside of oft-failing ABA therapy. The fact is that kids with autism often suffer lifelong pain and have for so long, they are not even aware of it. That pain manifests in behaviors like self-injurious behaviors or lashing out especially when a child can’t communicate.
What’s Your Take?
All I can say is that our journey with food and alternative interventions has greatly helped my child function. We have not found the exact “piece” that will make everything fit perfectly but I do not believe that is how this process works. I’m not looking for a miracle “cure.” I’m looking to heal her gut, fix her programmable genes, and recover what can be recovered.
However, autism is an imperfect journey because the fixable pieces are difficult to find and address, and the hard wired pieces are elusive too. It is a journey of many, many steps to find the path that most benefits each of our children so that he or she can have a life full of joy, family, friends and a career – heck, maybe even marriage.
And it is a journey that I will take with her every day of my life that she wants me to.
*I do understand the argument that we’ve heard from the past about autism being “better diagnosis tools,” but you also have to take that hand in hand with Asperger’s being removed as a diagnosis. You also have to look at the rate of increase: from 1 in 2500 in the 1990’s to 1 in 45 today.
Additionally, there would mean that there would be scores of adults alive right now who are as socially, behaviorally and/or developmentally disabled as our children. This is not the case either. So we need to face the reality that autism at a level that presents great behavioral, social and functional challenges is increasing at a rate we will not be able to support.