By Martin Oliver
For most parents, a diagnosis that their child is autistic comes as a major shock. They would like to see their offspring enjoy a normal life, and the realisation that their loved one may be unable to live independently once reaching adulthood is a difficult adjustment.
Autism is a neurological development condition that is sometimes present from birth, although in the case of regressive autism it is unexpectedly acquired by a normally developing child. Parents often quickly notice the symptoms of flapping hand movements, the child’s lack of interest in its surroundings, little eye contact, and poor verbal communication.
Over the last few decades, rates of autism (largely the regressive type) have risen dramatically throughout the developed world. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, most American paediatricians had never seen an autistic child, and by 1983 only about 1 in 10,000 children in the US were affected by autism. The latest data from the States indicates that a staggeringly high 1 in 91 children (1 in 58 boys) are now autistic. By the time you read this, the prevalence of autism will have grown even higher.
As knowledge has improved, new definitions of autism have been drawn up and new methods of reporting have been introduced. Unfortunately, neither of these factors goes very far in explaining such a dramatic exponential rise. A study in the January 2009 issue of Epidemiology looked at autism figures in California, and concluded that about one seventh of the increase in autism could be explained by broader definitions, different reporting, and a possible influx of families with autistic children into the state. It is becoming increasingly evident that autism itself is skyrocketing.
What are the causes?
This question has preoccupied the US autism support group Generation Rescue, founded by the celebrity couple Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey.
While traditional thinking about the origins of autism has tended to focus on genetics, there are growing challenges to the view that this is the sole cause. Autism is simply rising too fast to keep up with the pace of genetic changes. Research funding continues to be directed towards genetic factors, and largely turns a blind eye to the gene-environment interactions that Generation Rescue proposes as the likely culprits. A child could have a genetic predisposition towards becoming autistic, and environmental factors might be the trigger.
Generation Rescue holds the view that heavy metals, live viruses (including those from vaccinations) and bacteria are likely to be interfering with biomedical pathways in the body. To support this view, the group points out that many children with autism often exhibit a range of physical symptoms including eczema, food allergies, constipation and diarrhoea, candida, immune system issues and sleep disturbances. Of the neurotransmitters in the brain, about 70% are also found in the gut.
McCarthy has drawn attention to scientific findings pointing to children often developing neurological disorders as a result of severe oxidative stress and brain inflammation. A number of cutting-edge medical doctors agree with these conclusions.
In Australia, where autism affects at least 1 in 160 children, a group here that is looking holistically at the condition is the MINDD Foundation, a body of doctors and scientists aligned with the Autism Research Institute in the US. MINDD is working to educate people that autism is a medical and not a psychological condition, and focuses much of its attention on digestive and metabolic issues. Parents can use the group’s website to locate trained practitioners.
Leslie Embersits, director of MINDD, considers some autism symptoms to be directly linked to health and dietary issues. For example, in her view:
Head-banging is a reaction to the pain from ulcers in the gut.
Language delays result from unmetabolised proteins that leak through the gut, from where they enter the bloodstream and travel up to the brain, where they have an opioid effect similar to that from heroin.
Sideways glances are linked to nutritional deficiencies affecting the cones of the eyes.
Embersits sees a need for a greater attention to the issue at the national level, and for more epidemiological studies. For autism, as for ADHD, surprisingly there is no official statistic for their prevalence in Australia. In her view, we need more doctors who specialise in treating autistic children.
Mercury and other chemicals
Mercury is the world’s second most powerful neurotoxin, and, of all the environmental toxins suspected of playing a role in autism, it heads the list. Elevated mercury levels have frequently been measured in urine and hair samples from autistic children, and some medical professionals have gone so far as to describe autism as a form of mercury poisoning. The fact that testosterone concentrates the neurotoxicity of mercury may help explain why far more boys than girls are autistic.
A 2008 Texas study showed a correlation between industrial mercury emissions and autism rates, and while no cause-and-effect relationship was established, it is obviously best to try to minimise exposures. Sources include:
Coal-fired power stations. Mercury is naturally found within coal.
Chlorine production plants, where it may be used in the production process.
Amalgam fillings. In contrast, composite fillings are mercury-free.
Leaking mercury batteries, broken mercury thermometers, and damaged fluorescent lighting, including compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs.) It is worth tracking down recycling facilities for intact non-functioning fluorescent lighting so that the mercury can be recovered.
Large fish tend to accumulate mercury, and government advice encourages limiting consumption of some larger fish, in particular flake (shark), broadbill, swordfish, marlin, orange roughy and catfish.
In America, high-fructose corn syrup is widely used as a sweetener, and mercury traces found in the product have been linked to processing methods.
Other chemicals that commonly turn up in hair samples include lead, which is known to lower IQ and can lead to symptoms resembling autism. Sources include lead paint, lead contaminated dust, and some industrial emissions. High natural arsenic levels can be found in rice imported from South-East Asia, and may occur in the vicinity of chicken farms due to its presence in some feed products. Aluminium has a harmful synergistic neurotoxic reaction when combined with mercury, yet despite this fact both chemicals are sometimes used together as vaccine ingredients.
To date, the powerfully synergistic effects of multiple low-level exposures to chemicals including antibiotics remains largely unexplored, and with autism levels higher in areas with greater chemical releases it is obviously wise to take a precautionary approach. Embersits sees toxicity as a kind of slow downhill slide towards autism that is often accompanied by deficient levels of important nutrients.
A vaccination-autism link?
Few topics of discussion arouse the same controversy as a possible relationship between vaccination and autism. The notion of such a link is strongly rejected by the pharmaceutical industry, the medical profession, government authorities and most scientists.
Those parents whose children developed fevers on the evening of the day of vaccination, immediately followed by permanent autism symptoms, are expected to forgo their instinct, gut feeling and sense of knowingness in favour of this verdict. Their experiences are instead dismissed as ‘confirmation bias’, or the practice of selectively looking at facts that bolster existing beliefs. A counterargument is that, since vaccine reactions are rarely reported by doctors, the data used for population-based studiesis likely to be skewed. One estimate puts the Australian reporting rate for adverse vaccine reactions at under 10% of incidents.
In the US, between 1988 and 2009 the Court of Federal Claims made payouts to at least 1,322 children whose brain dysfunction followed vaccination, while side-stepping the loaded A-word. Jay Gordon, a doctor and professor of paediatrics, is certain of a vaccine-autism risk for children with a certain genetic predisposition.
Generation Rescue has focused much of its attention in this area, and points out that it is not anti-vaccines per se. Its concerns arise from the number of vaccines recommended for American children, which has nearly trebled since the 1980’s. Several are often administered during one hospital visit, and some parents feel that potential risks are minimised if their children receive vaccines one at a time. Generation Rescue is also calling for the ‘greening’ of vaccines by removing some of the most potentially harmful ingredients, including formalin (aqueous formaldehyde), MSG, phenol and benzethonium chloride.
However, the greatest subject of concern is usually thiomersal (known as thimerosal in America), a preservative that is about 50% ethylmercury, and which is currently used in a number of Australian vaccines. Unfortunately thiomersal reduces the body’s ability to produce the antioxidant glutathione, its primary detoxification defence against mercury. It also inhibits methylation, a process linked to cellular communication and development. Where thiomersal has been removed from vaccines, it is often replaced with another preservative, the highly toxic 2-phenoxyethanol.
Sadly, vaccination choice groups such as the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) in Bangalow, Northern NSW, are increasingly being portrayed as highly irresponsible, and blamed for causing loss of life through children developing preventable diseases. Indeed, the AVN appears to have been treading on some powerful toes, judging from the way that it has recently been targeted on as many fronts as possible in a concerted attempt to shut it down.
A story of recovery
Last year, a 25-year old American cheerleader called Desiree Jennings was medically diagnosed with a paralysing neurological disorder known as dystonia following a flu vaccination. As a result, she found herself in a strange position where she could walk backwards, but had great trouble walking in a normal fashion.
Following some high-profile media coverage, the story took a surprising turn a few weeks later. Doctors had told her that there was nothing they could do to help. She was having trouble breathing and did not believe that she had long to live. When she visited the naturopathic-orientated practitioner Rachid Buttar in North Carolina, he gave her an intravenous mixture of chelating agents, antioxidants, nutritional support and natural anti-virals, coupled with hyperbaric oxygen therapy. With this regime she experienced a marked improvement, and was soon able to walk again.
However, her story has been challenged by a chorus of sceptics who dismiss it as a hoax, or claim that her condition must have been psychologically induced, and her remarkable recovery would have been achieved in a similar manner. In addition, some dystonia experts are sceptical about the diagnosis. Following multiple hacking incidents involving her email address and website, Jennings has resorted to communicating with the outside world via YouTube videos, and reports that she is slowly getting better.
Cutting-edge autism treatments
Despite a mainstream view that autism is incurable, in recent years a lot of progress has been made in identifying steps that parents can take to help reverse the condition using biomedical interventions. In the early 1990’s, a Californian woman named Cindy Goldberg was the first to reverse her child’s regressive autism using probiotic and nutritional therapies, and since then understanding of natural treatment avenues has advanced significantly.
Instead of standing helplessly by, and treating autism as a life sentence, more parents are choosing to be proactive. Generally, the earlier a child is treated, the better his or her long-term prognosis. Dealing with autism is like working on a complex jigsaw puzzle, and help and advice from other parents dealing with the same challenges can be an important area of support. A survey of parents on the Autism Research Institute website looked at feedback from different strategies, and found that dietary changes were the most effective, followed by nutritional supplements, with pharmaceuticals at the bottom.
Jenny McCarthy’s interest in this field stems from experiences with her son Evan, who became autistic following a MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine. Today, at the age of seven, he has largely recovered as a result of the actions taken by his mother, and generally behaves like any other boy of his age.
McCarthy began the process by removing gluten (wheat and similar grains), and casein (all dairy products) from Evan’s diet, following which he showed an immediate improvement. Gluten in particular contains glutamate, a chemical that can overstimulate the neurons and cause brain inflammation. Embersits also suggests cutting out soya and corn, which have a similar structure to gluten and casein. Salicylates, preservatives, amines, MSG and food colourings often cause problems for children with autism or ADHD, and their levels can be reduced using an elimination diet known as FAILSAFE.
Adding vitamin A-rich cod liver oil to the diet is a good way to help repair intestinal walls, and the digestive system is also aided by probiotics, digestive enzymes and colostrum. Another popular dietary therapy involves a combination of Vitamin B6 and magnesium. Some parents have had remarkably good results from homoeopathy, while others have used chelation with success. This therapy involves the intake of chelating agents that work by binding to toxins such as heavy metals in the body, in turn allowing these metals to be excreted. Detractors claim that there is no proof of its effectiveness with autism, and point to the risks involved, which in reality are very small. There is a small chance of it causing a heart attack when the blood calcium is low, and for this reason the therapy ideally needs to be administered by a trained doctor.
Heavy metal levels can be measured via hair samples, which give a clue about what is happening during the therapy. While autistic children generally have several times more mercury in their first hair samples than those who are non-autistic, some do not readily excrete mercury from their bodies. This is instead locked up, often causing havoc with their health. Following the start of chelation therapy, their mercury levels often shoot up from an abnormally low zero level before steadily dropping.
Biomedical treatment also aims to avoid the risk of low-level toxic exposures from sources such as household cleaners, fluoride toothpaste, and mercury amalgam fillings. Living at home while renovations are in progress is a problem, as it can increase the intake of volatile organic compounds.
Taking precautions before birth
Many chemicals can be passed on from mother to child, and Embersits believes that children exposed to chemicals in the womb can be hypersensitive to the same substances after birth.
She recommends that mothers-to-be take a preventative approach in the 18 months prior to birth, via a few steps:
Measuring nutrient levels, and making up deficiencies with therapeutic doses.
Healing the digestive system by removing streptococcus and candida, while restoring good gut flora.
Testing for toxins that could be passed to a child, and then developing a detoxification strategy.
Eating an organic, alkalising, wholefood diet.
Hopefully, following such a plan will help to start reversing the prevalence of a condition that is becoming ever more widespread, whose causes need to be pinpointed, and which urgently needs to be recognised as a global health crisis.
Resources – websites
Autism Research Institute
SafeMinds (mercury activism)
Autism360 (diagnostic and treatment tool)
MINDD Foundation (Australia)
Australian Vaccination Network
Disposing of mercury-containing lamps
Government advice on mercury in fish
Resources – books
Kenneth Bock & Cameron Stauth – Healing The New Childhood Epidemics: Autism,ADHD, Asthma and Allergies (Ballatine, 2007)
Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore (Northern NSW.)